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A former police inspector tonight denied involvement in the notorious killing of the anti-racist protester Blair Peach, after a report released earlier in the day suggested he may have been the officer who struck the “fatal blow”. Alan Murray, who is now a Sheffield University lecturer but was a 29-year-old Metropolitan police inspector in 1979, said he was the victim of a bungled investigation into Peach’s death. “I did not kill Blair Peach. Of that I am certain,” he said.
Murray was speaking after the release of more than 3,000 previously secret documents that shed new light on the death of Peach, a 33-year-old teacher from New Zealand whose skull was crushed by a single blow to the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall, west London, on the evening of 23 April 1979. The documents appeared to confirm the long-held suspicion that Peach was likely to have been killed by an officer from the Met’s riot squad, the special patrol group (SPG).
The key document was produced by Commander John Cass, who ran the Met’s internal complaints bureau and led the inquiry into Peach’s death. He concluded that Peach was “almost certainly” killed by one of six SPG officers, some of whom then lied to cover up the actions of their colleague. No officers were ever charged over Peach’s death, although the event marked one of the darkest moments in Scotland Yard’s history. Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan police commissioner, recognised as much when he said the report made “uncomfortable reading”. He unequivocally accepted the finding that a Met officer was likely to have been responsible for the death and, in an unusual move, expressed his regret.
“I have to say, really, that I am sorry that in over 31 years since Blair Peach’s death we have been unable to provide his family and friends with the definitive answer regarding the terrible circumstances in which he met his death,” he said.
Asked if he was apologising for the death of Peach, he replied: “I am sorry that officers behaved that way, according to Mr Cass.”
Murray, who retired from the Met soon after the death and now lectures in corporate social responsibility at Sheffield University, was not named in the documents that were made public. But he accepted that from evidence given at Peach’s inquest and other material, he was easily identifiable. The former inspector is among dozens of police officers questioned over the death more than 30 years ago who can now be identified. They include Tony Lake, who attended the Southall demonstration as an SPG sergeant, and later rose through the highest ranks of the constabulary, becoming the chief constable of Lincolnshire police.
Lake, who once chaired the national DNA database and was awarded an OBE when he retired two years ago, declined to comment last night on Peach’s death but said that a 1981 newspaper report linking him to the officers identified in the Cass report was “fundamentally wrong”.
The Met agreed to release the documents last year in the aftermath of the death of Ian Tomlinson, a 47-year-old newspaper seller who died after being attacked by police at the G20 protests in London. The officer filmed striking Tomlinson was a member of the territorial support group, which replaced the disbanded SPG in 1987. The Crown Prosecution Service is still considering whether to charge the officer with manslaughter.
Yesterday’s publication marked the culmination of a 31-year campaign by friends and family of Peach for full disclosure of the Met’s inquiry into the death. The Cass report was suppressed in 1980 by the late Dr John Burton, the coroner who oversaw the inquest into Peach’s death.
The inquest controversially returned a verdict of “death by misadventure”, but recently disclosed documents suggest Burton was biased in favour of the police. He wrote to ministers before the end of the inquest, dismissing the belief that Peach was killed by an officer as political “fabrication”.
After the inquest, Burton penned an “unpublished story” about the Peach death which railed against what the coroner saw as a leftwing campaign to destabilise the legal establishment. Senior civil servants managed to persuade him not to publish his account. One official wrote: “An article like this would be a heaven-sent opportunity to those who wish to get maximum publicity out of this incident to argue that the coroner was biased and for this reason the inquest was unsound.”
Peach’s long-term partner, Celia Stubbs, said yesterday she felt totally vindicated by the Cass report. She described its released as “the beginning of the end” of her campaign for answers.
She repeated her long-held belief that Peach would not have wanted to be known as a political martyr, but accepted that the search for answers over his death had for many become a political cause in itself, galvanising concern over what were considered the brutal actions of corrupt and unaccountable police. When Peach’s body was finally buried – 51 days after his death – thousands of activists marched across London. Around 8,000 mainly Sikhs from Southall had already paid their respects at his open coffin, which lay in a nearby theatre the previous night.
The suspicions of most of those mourners – that a police officer killed Peach – were all but confirmed in yesterday’s report.
Stubbs said: “It is fantastic after 31 years. I have only read 200 pages of the report but I feel that we have really been vindicated because we have always said that Blair had been killed by a policeman. It says in the report that it was an officer that struck Blair.
“I never really expected a prosecution. I don’t regret that, I am just pleased that we have the report so we can see what happened on the day.”
The Cass report was written at the end of the summer of 1979, following months of inquiries. In laying out his terms of reference he said: “My brief is to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death, so I do not propose to enlarge much further on the events of that day except to emphasise that it was an extremely violent volatile and ugly situation where there was serious disturbance by what can be classed as a ‘rebellious crowd’.
“The legal definition ‘unlawful assembly’ is justified and the event should be viewed with that kind of atmosphere prevailing. Without condoning the death I refer to Archbold [Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice] 38th edition para 2528: “In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed.”
If Cass was seeking to exonerate his men, it was an endeavour he found difficult in the face of more than 3,000 pages of witness testimony, forensic evidence and tense interviews with officers. After reviewing hundreds of pages of evidence, he reached his conclusion: that it could “reasonably be concluded that a police officer struck the fatal blow”. Despite this, he said there was insufficient evidence to bring charges of unlawful killing.
Cass had narrowed his investigation down to six SPG officers in carrier U11, the first vehicle to arrive in Beachcroft Avenue, the suburban street where Peach was found stumbling around, barely able to talk. Moments earlier, 14 witnesses had seen “a police officer hit the deceased on the head” but, according to Cass, there were discrepancies in their evidence and most could not identify an officer from repeated identity parades.
Although he did not recommend charges over the death, Cass did name three officers he proposed should be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice, believing they had lied to his investigators to cover up the actions of their colleague. Analysing their statements, he found some had been engaged in a “deliberate attempt to conceal the presence of the carrier at the scene at that time”.
In a key passage, he wrote: “It is now clear that [carrier] U11 was at the scene and almost certainly the officer who struck the blow had come from that carrier. It will be appreciated that the explanation given by the crew of the carrier would be of paramount importance to the investigation.” He went on to express concern over the “attitude and untruthfulness” of some of the officers in the van, and found their responses “seriously lacking”.
His recommendation that three officers be prosecuted for lying to their seniors was apparently overruled by the then director of public prosecutions, Sir Thomas Hetherington, who within weeks of receiving the Cass report announced there was insufficient evidence to bring any charge against any officer. After the Met reviewed the conduct of the officers, it was felt that none should be disciplined.
Of the six SPG officers, Cass said there was an “indication” that one officer in particular – the first to emerge from the carrier – struck the “fatal blow”, but emphasised that there was “no evidence of a conclusive nature”. The name of that officer was redacted from today’s published version of the report, but last night Murray acknowledged that it was a reference to him. He accepted he was the first out of the van and said he was aware at the time that Cass had made him a “prime suspect” in the inquiry. But he criticised the investigation, and accused Cass of turning to him in the absence of more concrete evidence.
“In a report like that, that man [Cass] can write anything he likes,” he said. “So he is pursuing me and trying to fit me up for a murder that I didn’t commit, and then he tells people that I am stressed.”
Claiming he had been a “hostage to fortune”, Murray accused Cass of bungling the investigation. Cass, 85, who retired 20 years ago, said last night he was unwilling to comment on the allegations being made by Murray. But the Met stood by Cass, saying his findings were the result of an extensive and robust inquiry. Commander Mark Simmons, the officer who now runs the Met’s complaints department and oversaw the release of his predecessor’s report, said “a significant amount of resources” had been put into the investigation. “I’ve got no reason to disagree with Commander Cass’s conclusions,” he added.
Cass’s findings were also welcomed yesterday by Deborah Coles, a co-director of Inquest, an organisation that was set up in 1981 partly in response to Peach’s death and provides advice on contentious deaths. However, she raised questions about the institutions that hold police to account. “The whole police investigation into what happened on 23 April 1979 was clearly designed as an exercise in managing the fallout from the events of that iconic day in Southall, to exonerate police violence in the face of legitimate public protest,” she said. “The echoes of that exercise sound across the decades to the events of the G20 protest and the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009.”
On 23 April 1979 Blair Peach, a teacher and activist, was killed on an English street, in daylight, in front of witnesses, by a member of the Metropolitan police. It has taken 31 years for the force to release documents that confirm this is true, and confirm too that the force had a good idea who killed him and did nothing about it. In fact they covered it up.
Many things about policing have changed for the better since then. Yesterday the Metropolitan police released everything they have previously kept back about the case: 3,000 documents, including a report by Commander John Cass, which found that the group of officers involved in Mr Peach’s death were telling “easily recognised lies”. The Cass report should have been published 30 years ago. Mr Peach’s partner Celia Stubbs has fought bravely over the years to see it. But it has at least emerged now, and it would be wrong to say the Met of today is, underneath, still the Met of 1979. From the Scarman report onwards, the force has been made to confront its failings and reform.
But disturbing echoes of the past remain. The Met would like yesterday’s release of documents to mark the closing of a lamentable era, the sort of world shown in the series Life on Mars, when officers, as in the case of the Special Patrol Group responsible for Mr Peach’s death, kept whips and weighted coshes in their lockers. No police officer, it is to be hoped, would get away with that now. But members of the Territorial Support Group, which replaced the SPG in 1987, were involved last year in the death of another man at another demonstration. The parallels between Ian Tomlinson‘s death, as a bystander at the G20 protests, and Mr Peach’s killing are not exact. But they are close enough to be worrying.
The police handling of the Southall protest which led to Mr Peach’s death was abominable. No public statement of sympathy was ever made by the police. In spite of detailed criticisms and complaints at the time about police conduct, including the killing, no police officer was ever disciplined in any way, much less prosecuted for any act committed at Southall. Police refused to offer evidence or to co-operate with the independent inquiry.
Its been 31 year and four days since Blair Peach was killed by a policeman. They know that it was down to a police van with six SPG policeman in it but they don’t know which and they aren’t saying. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it was the other way around and a policeman had been killed and six protesters had been identified it would not have stopped there. You only have to go forward a few years to the Broadwater Farm riots when PC Blakelock was killed. They got their men.
In March 1987 three men, Winston Silcott, Mark Braithwaite and Engin Raghip were convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock After the trial it was revealed that Winston Silcott had, in the meantime, been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the earlier murder of another man, Tony Smith. On 25 November 1991 the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions amid allegations of fabrication of evidence. Mark Braithwaite and Engin Raghip were released. Winston Silcott remained in prison for the murder of Smith, being released on licence in 2003 after serving eighteen years. In 1994 two of the investigating detectives stood trial, and were acquitted of fabricating evidence. In 2003, police announced that new evidence had come to light. Subsequently the garden of a house in Tottenham was searched with an undisclosed item being found. In 2004 PC Blakelock’s overalls were retrieved from Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum for a new forensics examination, after exhaustive inquires except after several years it turns out he didn’t do it. I am not sure whether to be more depressed by our police service’s dishonesty or incompetence. I hope to live long enough to read the papers in the year 2040 when we will hear similar statements about Ian Tomlinson.
The cops got away with murder. They finally admitted it. The police behaviour that murdered Blair Peach helped fuel the revolt and riots of the early 1980s. People had had enough. The SUS laws – how appropriate that a film version of Barrie Keefe’s 1979 play Sus has just been made into a searing film – were a major reason behind the riots.
The death of Ian Tomlinson suggests unequivocally that the Met is at least as bad as it was in 1979. At least Blair Peach was actually a protester … poor Ian was just trying to get home.
The lack of a prosecution for the death of Blair Peach is perfectly mirrored in the continued dithering of the CPS in the Ian Tomlinsoncase. The rioters who put the windows in at the RBS branch at the G20 went to jail months ago … the copper who killed Ian is suspended on full-pay, and may never even appear in court.
The attempted cover-up by the Met with regard to the death of Ian Tomlinson is perhaps even more worrying than the obsfucation that Cass met in investigating Blair Peach’s death … the misleading press release, the faulty cause of death, the many untruths fed to Ian’s family and the media must have been sanctioned at a senior level.
The top brass can tell us how much they’ve changed until they’re blue in the face … but our experience on the streets and in the kettle speaks the truth.
Despite what police said, many under oath, Jean Charles de Menezes did not jump the barrier at Stockwell tube and run to the train, the police did not identify themselves as armed police, and de Menezes did not move towards them.
What other conclusion can we draw, other than such claims were part of an attempt to evade responsibility for killing someone? And how many police were convicted of any wrongdoing?
And we can guess from the casual demeanour of the attack on Tomlinson that it was commonplace at the G20. How many officers have – as is their duty – handed themselves in or reported fellow officers for excessive force that day? How many heads do we think will roll for it? The same as for de Menezes and Blair Peach.