Police abandon massive trawling operation as judges listen to evidence of injustice

THE APPEALS OF Basil Williams Rigby and Mike Lawson, the two former care workers whose cases were heard in the high court on 17 and 18 February, have not yet been decided. After a two-day hearing attended by some fifty friends, relatives and supporters of the two men, judgment was reserved.

Some two years ago Rebecca Williams Rigby described to BBC reporter Paul Vickers the moment when she finally realised her father was going to prison. 'He said "how can I prove my innocence?" and I just hugged him and said "you can't, Dad". Then I knew for certain that he wasn't coming home.'

She was right and her father was duly sentenced to ten years in prison for horrific sexual crimes which he had not committed.  Today Rebecca waits anxiously for the outcome of her father's appeal.

In another part of Merseyside, Geraldine Lawson also waits to hear whether the conviction of her husband, former police officer and father of three, Mike Lawson, will be overturned. 'I've been through the A to Z of Saints already,' she says, 'and I just can't think of anyone else to pray to. But whatever happens now we will go on. Even if Michael wins his appeal we will go on for the sake of all the other innocent men who are in prison.'

'What people don't realise,' she says, 'is that this is something which is with you all the time. It's with you in the morning when you wake up and it's with you at night when you go to bed. It's been six years now since the case against Michael first started up, six long years. We've done everything we can. All we can do now is just wait, hope and pray.'

The two former care workers each had their own legal team at the Appeal Court. Basil Williams Rigby was represented by solicitor Chris Saltrese and by Patrick Cosgrove, the QC who acted for Newcastle nursery nurse Dawn Reed at the 1994 criminal trial in which she was acquitted. As reported by the Liverpool Daily Post, he told the court that at his trial Williams-Rigby had been put in a situation where the burden of proof was reversed and he effectively had to prove his innocence.

'Where the defence was able to deploy any evidence independent of the appellant to contradict the evidence of a complainant, the jury acquitted of all allegations,' he said. 'Where the defence was not able to do so, the jury convicted.'

Iain Goldrein QC, representing Mike Lawson, said that evidence which was prejudicial to Lawson's defence had been wrongly put before the jury. They had been told about the many arrests resulting from Operation Care but were never informed that, subsequently, many of the charges were dropped.

'They must have thought the place was a den of iniquity,' he said

Both men once worked in the same children's home as former Southampton football manager David Jones, who was cleared of all allegations against him in December 2000. Jones's trial had collapsed after his solicitors found witnesses who were prepared to testify that some of the complainants in his trial had admitted they had fabricated allegations against him in order to obtain compensation.

Last year, even after the Home Affairs Committee published its highly critical report on police trawling methods, Liverpool police continued to defend the investigation which had led to the arrest of Jones and the conviction of Williams Rigby and Lawson.

But last week, as lawyers were still putting forward their arguments in the Appeal Court, Claire Curtis-Thomas MP, who was seated in the public gallery, was able to pass a note to the Williams Rigby legal team containing  news of a dramatic decision just taken by Merseyside Police. Operation Care, once regarded as the model for police investigations of 'historic' abuse allegations, was to be axed.

As MP for the Merseyside constituency of Crosby, and Chair of the all-party committee on abuse investigations, Curtis-Thomas had already been asked for her views on this development by the Daily Post.
'I am emphatically not opposed to investigations which uncover child abuse.' she said, 'but I do oppose the methods that are being deployed by police in Operation Care where they take statements from convicted criminals.'

Although senior Merseyside police officers were claiming last week that Operation Care was being abandoned for financial reasons, the timing of the decision has led observers to speculate that the force is already anticipating the fierce criticism which will undoubtedly result if the convictions of Lawson and Williams Rigby are overturned. The police are in effect attempting to avoid criticism by dismantling the principal target against which it would be directed before the Appeal Court decision is announced.

No date
has yet been given for what could be a brace of historic judgments but they are expected within the next week or so. After a hearing during which the three judges appeared to be giving close attention to every detail of the arguments  put forward by lawyers on behalf of the appellants, supporters of the two men remain cautiously optimistic.

One of those present during the hearing was Rosie Waterhouse, the journalist whose work played a key role in discrediting beliefs about satanic ritual abuse some fifteen years ago. For her Daily Telegraph report on the second day of the hearing, click here.

Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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