West Midlands Against Injustice (WMAI)

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Now you see it, now you don't - the case of the Planted Balaclava By Norman Grant

When common law rules governing the admissibility of Bad Character in criminal proceedings were abolished in 2003 and replaced with the disclosure of a defendant's previous history to the jury, good and bad detectives up and down the land must have clapped their hands together with unrestrained glee.

For immediately they knew, once a suspect's previous convictions for a similar offence were disclosed to the jury, all that was required to secure a routine conviction was a smear of DNA material planted at the scene of a crime and the rest was history. How do I know all this? Well unfortunately it happened to me!

The facts: On a cold and wintery January afternoon in 2010,

A gang of masked armed robbers visited Handsworth Cemetery, Birmingham. At about 4:00 pm. (closing time) they overpowered three members of staff. They forced them to open the safe and were bound and gagged with plastic cable ties and black tape and bundled into a Ford Connect van owned by the Cemetery.

The robbers then commandeered a JCB digger at the Cemetery and a silver BMW owned by an employee. Together the JCB, BMW and the Ford Connect van all set off in convoy for the UAE Exchange Bank situated at the corner of Soho Road and Murdock Road, Handsworth, Birmingham.

Meanwhile the captives in the back of the van were making mental notes of the raiders. Later they concluded, they were a mixed gang of black-and white men wearing dark masks and dark clothing. One of the robbers spoke with a distinctive Caribbean accent.

Just after the UAE Exchange Bank had closed at 5:30 pm and the Bank tellers were cashing in their tills, a stolen Ford Focus pulled away from a parking space directly adjacent to the Bank's side window in Murdock Road.

Seconds later the staff in the Bank heard a loud crashing noise as the JCB with its bucket raised smashed into the side window in Murdock Road. After several runs at the window they create, a hole big enough for two masked gunmen to enter the Bank and ransack the safe and tills and escape with a substantial amount of cash.

Eyewitnesses outside the Bank noticed the driver of the JCB fleeing down Murdock Road and described him as a white male with a dark facial mask. Simultaneously, as the robbers began their daring raid, the three captives in the Ford Connect van were jettisoned from the van nearby. Almost immediately, witnesses began to put two and two together and began to call the police on their mobile phones.

Almost two minutes later as the two gunmen exited the Bank through the hole in the wall, the first local police patrol came on the scene. The JCB had blocked the path of the police vehicle and the robbers took off down Murdock Road with the police running after them in hot pursuit.

Unexpected vehicles coming up Murdock Road had caused a traffic jam and blocked the getaway route of the robber's vehicles, the stolen Ford Focus and Ford Connect van.

The panicking robbers abandoned their vehicles and made their escape on foot down Centenery Drive, a nearby alleyway and into gardens, jumping over gates and walls leaving behind a wealth of incriminating evidence in the process.

The scene of the crime was quickly cordoned off to the public and at 19:00 hours a team of Forensic Scene Investigators (FSI) arrived to begin the painstaking task of recording and recovering the evidence.

At the forefront of these was Forensic Scene Investigator Brookes who was responsible for recording and gathering evidence at the Bank and the JCB digger in Murdock Road. Initially he took a series of photographs of the inside and outside the Bank and also the interior and exterior of the JCB. Later he recovered a magazine containing six bullets from the Bank and some black tape and cable ties discarded on the pavement as the raiders fled from the police.

Bizarrely, however, FSI Brookes steered well clear from a detailed examination of the JCB, despite it yielding a potential gold mine of forensic opportunities, especially inside the vehicle, such as, possible biological trace material or fingerprints on the steering wheel, hand-brake, gear-stick, indicators, interior mirror, prominent levers under the seat for adjustments, cigarette stubs, sweet wrappers, empty soft drink bottles, discarded firearms and ammunition, etc.

At the minimum, we would expect the forensic expert to swab the JCB fur pre-robbery saliva and sweat, but not Mr Brookes; he was content with a visual assessment of the vehicle and some photographs of limited value.

Meanwhile further down Murdock Road, Forensic Science Officer Roberts was having more success. He also took a series of photographs of the abandoned Ford Connect van owned by the Cemetery and clambered over the partition and in the rear discovered an under-and-over 12 gauge, sawn-off shotgun, a £10 bank note and a black woollen hat found down the side of the driver's seat containing DNA of a possible suspect.

Equally proficient was Forensic Scene Manager Evans, who forensically examined the abandoned stolen Ford Focus in Murdock Road where he discovered a JD Sports plastic carrier bag, a blue builders hard hat, yellow high visibility bib, a grey-black woollen hat and latex glove with two fingertips missing also containing the DNA of another possible suspect.

If things were looking good, they were even better at the crime scene in Centenery Drive where Forensic Scene Manager Bray discovered a discarded loaded double-barrel shotgun and an assortment of banknotes, plastic moneybags and money bands in the rear of the gardens.

Back at the top of Murdock Road, DC O'Donnell checked the cabin of the JCB with a searchlight to see if footprints visible on the floor of the vehicle were suitable for forensic examination, but she noticed that some areas were muddy whereas others were dusty and dirty. She also noticed due to the vibration of the engine that was still running it caused the fine detail of the footprints to disintegrate.
Moreover, PC Hanchett stated that he opened the JCB door and leaned inside and moved the lever on the steering column upwards to disable the bleeping sound. Strangely, at trial no one admitted to turning the engine off?

But when Mr. Hobbs, the police employed recovery man arrived to recover the JCB digger he had to start the vehicle using the keys still in the ignition.

Once the JCB was loaded on the recovery vehicle it was placed into storage at Jackson's secure compound where it was booked in by the owner Mr. Wilkes at 20:57 hours.

Why is all this small detail relevant I here you ask? Well please bear with me. Seven days after the robbery, on the 19th January 2010, the Senior Investigating Officer, DC Maher, called FSI Brookes and asked him to pop along to Jackson's compound to take some additional photographs of the digger. He did this at 13:30 hours.

Later that same afternoon DC Maher gave authorization to Mr. WIlkes for the JCB to be returned to the owners who were to collect it that afternoon.

Astoundingly, after the call from DC Maher, HR Wilkes then drove the JCB to another open-air storage compound in Hampton Street, Newtown, about a mile away.

A short while later at 15:15 hours, two employees arrived from Handsworth Cemetery, Mr. Crane and Mr. Robinson, and as Soon as they opened the door to the digger, bingo, Mr. crane stated: "I noticed what looked like a woollen khaki hat under the drivers seat." He added, "I did not have to go into the cab of the JCB [to retrieve the balaclava, using the end of my thumb and fore fingers of my left hand I picked the hat up from under the seat."

Equally bizarre, Mr. Crane did not report this remarkable discovery to Mr. Wilkes at the open-air storage compound, but drove the JCB digger back to the Cemetery where by sheer coincidence were three senior detectives nearby Working on the robbery case.

Subsequently, the distinctive khaki balaclava was sent away for forensic analysis and it came back with a mixed DNA profile of three individuals, lo and behold, one of them belonged to me. Interestingly, it also contained two human hairs, possibly of the last person that wore the mask, but inexplicably, these were destroyed.

In order to support the proposition that the khaki balaclava was in the JCB all the time, FSI Brookes stated that he took two photographs of the interior of the JCB at 10:39 and 10:41 hours on the same evening of the crime.

This was in spite of the fact that Mr. Wilkes had said that the JCB had returned to Jackson's storage compound at 20:57. Mr. Hobbs the police recovery man stated at the trial that he could not recall the exact time he returned the JCB to the compound.

Even more remarkable, although FSI Brookes developed and processed the photographs and exhibited them in a presentational album it was DC O'Donnell who upon checking the photographic exhibits noticed a khaki balaclava protruding from under the driver's seat of the JCB digger.

Accordingly, DC O'Donnell took the photographs to be "optimized" and after the image was enhanced, struggling to be seen, under the seat were a swirl of camouflage shades and hues that the Crown proclaim was the balaclava.

Later when Mr. Crane, the Cemetery employee, was asked to draw a sketch of where he initially found the khaki balaclava, he noted that it was in the middle of the foot well area of the digger.

We are all aware, when serious crimes are committed, in order to identify and locate the culprits; the police need to prioritize the forensic examination of certain exhibits. It is therefore, no coincidence, that a vital exhibit found at a crime scene would be forensically examined and returned to the officers in the case with, the results in about a week. Exactly the timescale here.

I have always stated, before, during and after the trial that I have never been inside that JCB digger and that an unknown police officer or Forensic Scene Investigator had planted the distinctive khaki balaclava at an unknown time.

I believe once the balaclava had been forensically analyzed and it had been confirmed that it contained partial elements of my DNA genes, it was then planted inside the JCB digger.

I suggest once the wicked police plan was hatched to say the balaclava was found in the JCB a week after the crime, all the officers in the case downplayed the need or necessity to forensically examine the interior of the JCB digger.

For example, FSI Brookes refused to conduct detailed forensic examinations inside the JCB. DC O'Donnell dismissed the golden opportunity to construct plaster casts of footprints in the foot well. No one agreed to switching off the engine of the JCB in situ. PC Hanchett never noticed the mask upon leaning into the JCB to disable the bleeper. Mr. Hobbs, the recovery never noticed the mask on the way to storage. FSI Brookes never noticed the mask up on return to the JCB t 0 take further, photographs of the vehicle a week after the offence. MR Wilkes never noticed anything untoward when he drove the digger the short distance to the open-air storage compound.

I propose, are we all to believe, that this khaki balaclava can scurry in and out of sight like a frightened creature on its own accord? Are we to believe, that a total of five or more people, two of them specialist search personnel looking for discarded firearms with powerful spotlights never checked the foot well area of the digger, which is located at eye-level?

Are we to believe that Mr. Crane accidentally found the mask less than two hours after FSI Brookes visited the JCB to take more photographs? Are we to believe, M. Wilkes transferred the JCB to the open-air facility on a whim? Or was he fearful that M. Crane would have involved him in the staged discovery of the planted item?

Moreover, not one witness, including trained police officers in observation, mention a robber wearing the khaki balaclava?

In my opinion, once a daring robbery of this nature and calibre was conducted in my area, Handsworth, Birmingham, where I socialize and reside with my direct family and friends, the police knowing that I possess ancient previous convictions for this type of crime only had one target in their sights, and by hook or by crook, my days were numbered.

Alas, on the 2nd March 2010, some six weeks after the offence, police officers from Operation Cagnoli crashed through the doors of five potential suspects, one of them me. We were arrested, processed, interviewed and remanded to prison for trial.

Not surprisingly, the main plank in the prosecution's case entailed strong and compelling DNA evidence against four of the five defendants, namely, cellular material found in a variety of head wear and the latex glove.

The prosecution also claimed that a du-rag with distinctive tassels seized from my home on arrest was a close match to head wear worn by a gunman seen on CCTV in the Bank.

This caused a major headache for the planter of the balaclava, because if the alleged gunman in the Bank was me wearing the tassled du-rag. And the driver of the JCB was a white male, who by the way pleaded guilty to the offence and gave evidence to the fact that I did not participate in the crime. The planted khaki balaclava was obviously surplus to requirements? For there is no dispute that I only possess one head!

More crucially, at the very time the robbers were captured on the CCTV inside the Bank, I admit that I was in the Handsworth area taking calls on my mobile phone from girlfriends. Therefore, according to the Crown's case, not only must I possess two heads for two distinct masks, but my body can also be in two places at the same time as well. It seems that you cannot win with telephone evidence. For it either conclusively incriminates you, or the cell site data supports a carefully crafted defence case and you are an absolute liar.

During the trial, the other defendants gave convincing evidence as to how their DNA came to be on the woollen hats in the stolen Ford Focus and the Ford Connect van, and also the recovered latex glove.

To further exacerbate matters, a note was sent from the jury to the judge explaining that they were frightened to elect a fore person or to deliver a verdict in open court, as they felt intimidated by the family and friends of the defendants in the public gallery.

More disturbingly, after an eight-week trial with five defendants the jury returned with verdicts after just two and half hours deliberation. That is half an hour deliberation for each defendant in what was described as a complex case with complex forensic issues.

Amazingly, all were acquitted save me. I was the only defendant to accuse the police of planting evidence and the jury chose to disregard my authentic alibi evidence supported by telephone schedules. I was sentenced to serve an indeterminate life prison sentence.

Since the wrongful conviction I have had little else to do but ruminate over how and when the police planted the distinctive khaki balaclava.

The Crown claim the balaclava could not have been planted as it was photographed inside the Cabin of the JCB on the evening of the offence.

Almost everyone in the case, even the jury, it seems, agree the balaclava must have been there, as the police photographs don't lie.

Even an independent photographic expert agreed that FSI Brookes photographs appeared accurate and authentic. But they all overlooked one important thing? If the photographs are genuine, its' the spare or new camera with the backdated photographs that is the real villain in the case.

I suggest, when FSI Brookes went back to Jackson's compound less than two hours before the balaclava was discovered by Mr Crane, I allege he planted the mask, took photographs of it under the driver's seat and then moved it to the centre of the foot well for Mr. Crane to easily find when he came to collect the digger with Mr. Robinson.

Surely it is not unreasonable of myself, to suggest that the misuse and abuse of police powers in the modern era may extend to the case where a rogue Forensic Scene Investigator may possess a spare camera for forbidden or darker purposes, where he or she is able to reset the date and time of photographs in order to distort or recreate the reality of a crime scene, i.e. plant the balaclava after the offence.

As I stated at the outset of this piece, all it takes is some DNA planted at the scene of a crime, and the disclosure of 'Bad Character' will do the rest.

Presently, I have a new solicitor Maurice Andrews conducting the Appeal against Conviction and we are seeking further independent expert analysis and advice in relation to the backdated photographs.

Also if any of the above West Midlands FSIs or detectives including DC Morgan, DC Simpson and DS Perkins (now believed to have retired) have been involved in your case where you suspect there may have been serious police malpractice or corruption, please feel free to contact myself, or if you do not feel safe writing to me direct, write to Maurice Andrews Solicitors, Alfred Andrews House, 180-182 Soho Hill, Hockley, Birmingham, B19 lAG. Telephone: 0121-554-7282.

Norman Grant
HMP Whitemoor
Long Hill Road
PE15 0PR