Murder of Maxwell Confait

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The investigation into the murder of Maxwell (aka Michelle) Confait was a case which raised questions about police procedures and how police adhered to the procedures already stipulated, and caused a major review in how suspects were treated, particularly children and "the educationally subnormal".

Incident[edit]

The London Fire Brigade was called to 27 Doggett Road, Catford, in southeast London, England, the home of Maxwell Confait, at 1:21 am on 22 April 1972. The fire was extinguished by 1:31 am and the Metropolitan Police arrived at 1:45 am, followed by a forensic pathologist at 2:00 am. One of the firefighters found the body, identified as male, of a mixed-race person in his twenties in the upstairs back bedroom of the house behind a locked door. The next day, the identity of the said person was found to be Maxwell Confait, 26 years old, who was a transvestite and prostitute. The police surgeon found the cause of death to be asphyxia. Confait's lips were blue and there were marks where he had been strangled with a rope or cord. Later, a lamp was discovered in a cupboard under the stairs and the flex in the dressing table drawer of the room where the body had been discovered.

The police surgeon did not take the rectal temperature to establish the time of death, because the senior policeman had noted that Confait was a "possible homosexual" and he did not wish to destroy any evidence of recent sexual activity.

Investigation[edit]

The first suspect was Confait's landlord, Winston Goode. The two had first met in a public house in Lewisham in 1970 shortly after Goode had broken up with his wife. In 1972, Maxwell moved into Goode's house, Goode sharing in Maxwell's fondness for wearing women's clothes. Maxwell paid £2.50 per week in rent.

When the fire broke out, Goode had been asleep. Upon waking up, he evacuated his wife and children (who were still living there) from the house. He then set off towards Catford Bridge railway station to telephone for the police. Mrs Goode sent a neighbour to help her distraught husband. During the police interviews, Goode inadvertently mentioned that he knew of Confait's plans to move out. He admitted to being jealous but denied any homosexual relationship. A couple of days later, Goode was admitted to Bexley Psychiatric Hospital in a confused and traumatised state and was unable to remember the previous few days. Later he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide.

Suspects[edit]

On Monday 24 April 1972, there were a number of fires in the area:

The police very quickly apprehended an eighteen-year-old man, Colin Lattimore, who had a mental age of eight. Lattimore admitted to lighting the fire at Doggett Road with his friend, Ronnie Leighton, aged 15, and their friend, 14-year-old Ahmet Salih were both arrested.

Despite the law stipulating that "As far as practicable, children (whether suspected of a crime or not) should only be interviewed in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child", all three of them were questioned without any other adult being present. Lattimore and Salih accused the police of hitting them. Lattimore suffered a nosebleed and Salih cried. Leighton also claimed to have been a victim of police violence. Lattimore and Salih both admitted to starting the fire. Lattimore admitted to the murder of Maxwell Confait but Salih only confessed to observing the murder.

Trial[edit]

By 25 April 1972, the police considered the case solved. After a preliminary hearing at Woolwich Magistrates Court, Lattimore and Leighton were sent to Ashford Remand Centre on charges of murder. Salih was charged with arson but was released on police bail. The families of the three boys and their legal representatives fought the case at the trial. All three boys had alibis for when the police surgeon and the pathologist had estimated Confait's death to have occurred, so if the medical experts were right, these boys could not have committed the crime.

In court, the pathologist, Professor Cameron,[citation needed] changed his opinion concerning the time of death, saying it could have been as late as 1:00 am and that the heat of the fire could have sped up the onset of rigor mortis. Ordinarily the rectal temperature, which had not been taken in this case, would have been heavily relied on. At the Old Bailey on 11 November 1972, the jury found Colin Lattimore guilty of manslaughter (on the grounds of diminished responsibility) and two counts of arson (at Doggett Road and Ladywell Fields). He was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act 1959 and was sent to Rampton Hospital in Nottinghamshire.

Ronnie Leighton was found guilty of arson at Doggett Road and Ladywell Fields, and also of burglary at a nearby address in Sangley Road, SE6. He was sent to Aylesbury Prison for a life sentence. Ahmet Salih was found guilty of the same offences as Ronnie Leighton, but was sent to the Royal Philanthropic School, Redhill for a four-year sentence on account of his age. On 26 July 1973, Lord Justice James refused leave to appeal, saying that "there was no misdirection in the summing up to the jury and no representation of facts which can be relied upon as justifying the grant of leave to appeal". Implicitly, the charges against the police of violence were dismissed.

Re-examination of cases[edit]

Colin Lattimore's father, insistent that his son was innocent, wrote many letters including to the Queen, Prime Minister and Home Secretary. His Member of Parliament, Carol Johnson, MP, wrote to the Home Office.

Meanwhile, the General Election on February 1974 brought Roy Jenkins and Alex Lyon into the Home Office, both of whom were committed to reviewing miscarriages of Justice. The new Member of Parliament for Lewisham was Christopher Price, MP, who had been working for Thames Television and after leaving parliament became Principal of Leeds Metropolitan University. The National Council for Civil Liberties had also become interested in the case and, with Price, contacted one of the leading pathologists in the country, Professor Donald Teare. Following a meeting between Price, Lyon and home office officials, a 30-minute documentary of this case was made for Thames Television during which Teare stated that Maxwell Confait died between 6:30 pm and 10:30 pm without question. Another contemporary pathologist, Professor Keith Simpson was brought in, who broadly agreed with those of Professor Teare.

During the spring of 1974, following a convention that home secretaries sought the advice of the Lord Chief Justice before referring cases back to the Court of Appeal, Lord Widgery gave his opinion that this case could properly be referred back. On 18 June 1975, Roy Jenkins announced in parliament that he was referring the case to the Appeal Court.

After a week of evidence in the Royal Courts of Justice and another week of court being adjourned for a verdict to be reached, all three suspects were found not guilty of all charges and promptly freed. Lord Scarman criticised the police for their handling of the case, claiming that they should have put more emphasis on the fact that there had been no struggle, suggesting that Maxwell Confait had known his killer. In his final judgement, he declared all three of the young men "innocent". The Home Secretary then ordered a further police enquiry into the case under Peter Fryer, of the Derbyshire Police, who later became Assistant Chief Constable of West Mercia. He made no arrests and the case remained unsolved. After the acquittals by the Appeal Court, Jenkins ordered a full enquiry. Sir Henry "Harry" Fisher (1918—2005), a former High Court Judge who later became President of Wolfson College, Oxford was chosen to chair it. His primary remit was to make recommendations about the Judges' Rules stipulating how police should treat suspects, particularly children and "the educationally subnormal" which was "palpably in need of review". He only accepted the chairmanship, however, on condition that he should also be free to find any individual guilty of the crime on 'the balance of probabilities', which is the civil standard of legal proof. In spite of opposition from some civil servants, he was allowed to proceed on this basis. In his report, he made a number of recommendations to improve the ‘Judges Rules’. But he also found two of the defendants, whom Scarman had declared ‘innocent’ in the Appeal Court, ‘guilty on balance of probability’. Because this statement was potentially libellous, the report was, exceptionally, published as a “Return to the House of Commons” which made it immune from litigation in the courts of justice. Fisher’s conclusions led to the setting up of another enquiry, the Royal Commission of Criminal Procedure (1979–1981) which itself led to the enactment - on a bipartisan basis - of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 and the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Two years later, on 20 February 1980, Detective Chief Superintendent EJ George and Inspector E Ellison presented a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions identifying Douglas Franklin as being Confait’s murderer and Paul Pooley as a witness of the murder; and confirming that the time of death estimated by Professors Cameron, Teare and Simpson was wrong. They had all assumed that rigor mortis was commencing immediately after the discovery of the fire. In fact Confait’s body had been dead for over 48 hours when it was found and rigor mortis was wearing off. Two eminent forensic pathologists, Professors Alan Usher and Keith Mant confirmed this conclusion, citing the discoloration of the organs of the body at the which indicated a gap of 72 hours between death and post mortem. In their report George and Ellison said ‘but for the arrest of the three youths by the original murder enquiry team’ … ‘in all probability Douglas Franklin would have emerged at an early stage as a major suspect.‘ Shortly after his interviews with George and Ellison, Franklin committed suicide. In August 1980, Sir Michael Havers prepared a statement to Parliament declaring the three young men innocent. When he sent for Fisher asking him to concur with this statement. Fisher adamantly refused to do so. In his obituary of Fisher, Louis Blom-Cooper, QC, who had represented the three young men at the Appeal and the Enquiry wrote: ‘Commendably, Harry Fisher never sought to defend his findings to me, and I had quite a lot to do with him when we were respectively, and amicably, President and Chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform from 1983 to 1984. He acknowledged, by implication, that he had got egg on his face‘.

In October 2019 the case was examined in the BBC Two programme Catching Britain's Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us.[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "BBC Two - Catching Britain's Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us, Series 1, Interrogation". BBC.
  • Lane, Brian (1992); The Murder Guide to London: Detailed accounts of the capital's most gruesome and bizarre murders; Magpie, London; ISBN 1-85813-064-6.
  • Price, Christopher and Caplan, Jonathan (1977); The Confait Confessions; Marion Boyars Publishers, London; ISBN 0-7145-2565-0.

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