Corbieres, a cellar wine bar in Half Moon Street in the centre of Manchester, was robbed at about 9.40 am on 20 June 1994 by three masked men armed with knives and a chisel. They threatened the manager, a cellarman and a brewery representative who were in Corbieres at the time, and forced them to open the safe. About £3000 in cash and luncheon vouchers was taken. Two of the witnesses thought that two of the robbers were white and the third black; the third thought there were two black robbers and one white.
Some 30 yards away, round a corner, a video camera in the doorway of the Alliance and Leicester Building Society recorded three men, two white and one black, passing in the direction of Corbieres at 9.46. At 9.53 they passed by in the opposite direction. This time the black man had a lump under his jacket, supported by one hand. On the basis of this evidence three men were convicted of the robbery and given sentences of eight years each.
They were Dave Steenson (then aged 30), his brother Peter (aged 29 – the Steensons are white), and a friend, Donald Showers (who is black, aged 28). When the police seized recordings from video surveillance cameras in the area and watched them, DC Styring recognised the three men, because he had recently been involved in mounting a case against them on serious charges – they were acquitted. The three were arrested, and their homes searched.
In Peter Steenson’s house, they found £370 in notes and £55 in cash in a teapot. The money could not be linked to that stolen from the wine bar. Peter’s wife told the police that the cash was hers. At Dave Steenson’s house they found the coat he had been wearing when he was captured on the video recording, and two kitchen knives, one of which was similar, the victims said, to a knife used in the robbery. When police showed the coat worn by Dave to the robbery victims, they said it was similar to one worn by one of the robbers; however, they said it was worn by the black man. That, and the video recording, was the sum total of the evidence against the three men.
You might think this was not enough of a case to charge the three men, let alone to put to a jury, as defence counsel argued at the trial in Manchester on 15 July 1996. But Judge Ensor ruled there was a sufficient case based on the video evidence alone. The prosecution interpreted the video evidence to mean that the three defendants were the robbers: the defence could reply that this was an arbitrary interpretation – there might be any number of innocent explanations for why the defendants were present in Manchester city centre on a weekday morning. But none of them gave any explanation. They refused to tell the police, and they chose not to give evidence.
When they were arrested, the so-called ‘right to silence’ still existed – juries were not supposed to regard refusal to answer police questions, or refusal to testify in court, as indicating guilt. But while these defendants were waiting to come to trial, the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act (1994) came into force, under which a jury could regard a defendant’s refusal to testify as evidence of their guilt. Defence counsel J. Dexter Dias (who also writes novels) argued that since the men had been charged while the old law was in force, it should apply to the trial. Judge Ensor ruled against him.
That change in the law made all the difference in this case. The arbitrary interpretation of the video by the police was unchallenged, and the very lack of a challenge suddenly became evidence which confirmed the interpretation. Dave says he was given to understand the new law would not apply to his case, and so he thought he did not need to testify. His appeal was based on this point, but his trial solicitors and counsel stated that they had explained to him how the changed law applied to his case before he made his decision not to testify. At his appeal application on 2 March 1998, the judges refused to hear his evidence about how he had been advised, and refused him and his co-defendants leave to appeal.
If Dave, Peter and Donald were not in Manchester city centre to commit armed robbery, why were they there? Why were they reluctant to tell the court about it? And what was in the bundle that Donald Showers concealed under his coat?
The bundle could not have been the money stolen in the robbery. Of the £3000 stolen, £700 was in coins. During the trial, the defence gathered together an identical collection of coins. In volume it was much bigger than the bulge under Donald’s jacket. And it was almost too heavy to lift – while on the video, Donald is shown carrying the bundle easily.
Now Dave has revealed that the concealed bundle contained cannabis, which they’d just bought at a pre-arranged meeting, from someone coming from outside Manchester. It’s clear why the three defendants agreed with each other not to say anything about why they were in the city centre at that time, especially since they all thought that their silence would not count against them. And while most of us might think that dealing in cannabis should not be regarded as a crime at all, admitting to possession of enough of it to sell on to others, would certainly have ensured they would go to prison, whereas keeping quiet when there was virtually no evidence against them looked a much better bet.
The defendants’ refusal to testify supported the main evidence – but what sort of evidence is a video recording like this? It means nothing on its own, but is given meaning only by the interpretation put on it by police officers. It doesn’t show anyone committing a crime – it shows some people known to the police who were nearby at roughly the time a crime occurred. What if they had explained they were there to pick up some harmless but illegal drug? They could produce no evidence of this. They would have been accused of lying, and convicted anyway.
The danger highlighted by this case is that video surveillance evidence is very convincing, because it seems to give us a neutral, direct view of events, but in practice it depends entirely on the interpretation put on it by the police who seize it and use it to clear up crimes. In other words, why we should be concerned about all the cameras watching us in public places is not for the feeble reasons put forward by groups like Liberty – that they are an intrusion on our privacy – but because what they record can be seized and, like our silence, used against us. In this case, the combination resulted in three men going down for eight years each. It did not result in the wine bar owners getting their money back.
written September 1998
previously published in The Law