The investigation into the murder of Maxwell Confait led to a major review into how suspects are treated by the police, especially children and vulnerable people. A cause celebre, it came to be seen as a classic miscarriage of justice.
The Fire Brigade was called to 27 Doggett Road, Catford at 0121 hours on 22 April 1972. A body was found. It was that of Maxwell Confait a 26 year old mixed race man from the Seychelles. A gay (?) transgender (?) prostitute, Confait preferred to be called Michelle and was well-known in the local area. He frequented the Black Bull Pub (now Fox and Firkin) and the Castle (now Bar Nuvo). He had been strangled.
|The Fox and Firkin pub (formerly The Black Bull), Lewisham High Street|
The police did not look very far. The first suspect was Winston Goode, the victim’s landlord and friend who lived at the same property with his wife Lillian and their children although the couple were separated. He denied any sexual relationship with Confait but admitted being jealous that Confait was planning to move out. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide.
On 24 April there were three more fires: along the railway line near Catford Bridge Station; a sports hut on Ladywell Fields and 1 Nelgarde Road (the next street).The police arrested three youths. Colin Lattimore aged eighteen but with learning disabilities, Ronnie Leighton, aged 15 and Ahmet Salih aged 14. The three were questioned without another adult present. Lattimore admitted to the murder but Salih confessed only to observing it.
The case went to trial at the Old Bailey where it received national media coverage. Despite the boys all having alibis for the time of death and claiming that the police had been violent to them in custody, Lattimore was found guilty of manslaughter, detained indefinitely, and sent to Rampton Hospital.
Leighton and Salih were found guilty of arson at Doggett Road and Ladywell Fields. Leighton was sent to Aylesbury Prison for life. Salih was sent to Royal Philanthropic School, Redhill for four years due to his age.
In July 1973, leave to appeal was refused despite disagreement between experts over the time of death. In 1975, the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins referred the case to the Court of Appeal. Following a high-level campaign led by Christopher Price, then local MP for Lewisham East, all three suspects were later found not guilty and freed by the Appeal Court. Lord Scarman criticised the original investigation for not emphasising the fact that there had been no struggle. This suggested that the victim knew his killer. He declared all three “innocent”. The Home Secretary then ordered a full enquiry by Sir Henry Fisher to look at the Judges Rules (i.e. how the police treat suspects, especially children and vulnerable people. Fisher made recommendations for reform but disagreed with Scarman finding two of the three defendants ” guilty on the balance of probability”. As a result, the report had to be published as a “return to the House of Commons” to make it exempt from libel. A Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure followed.
|The Confait confessions-book by the local MP|
Christopher Price and Jonathan Caplan with picture of
Maxwell/Michell Confait on the cover.
Another police enquiry led by Peter Fryer into the case made no arrests. In 1980, a high-level police report by identified Douglas Franklin as the killer and Paul Pooley as a witness. It also and confirmed that the time of death was 48 hours earlier than stated at trial. Professors Cameron, Teare and Simpson had assumed rigor mortis started after the discovery of the fire. In fact, Professors Usher and Mant, forensic pathologists, found clear evidence that Confait had been dead for 48 hours and that rigor was wearing off. The report concluded that had the boys not been arrested, Douglas Franklin would probably have become a suspect at an early stage of the original murder enquiry. Shortly after his police interview Franklin committed suicide.
Eventually, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and its Codes of Practice (PACE) were passed and a system of “appropriate adults” were created. The Prosecution of Offences Act, 1985 was also passed. It took prosecution out of the hands of the police and into a new body; the Crown Prosecution Service. This Act also codified the prosecution process. The Brixton Riots (1981) and the Scarman Report were also key factors in passing these Acts.
PACE sets out rules and safeguards for policing. The most visible change was the requirement that all interviews with suspects in the police station are recorded. Less visible was the role of the “appropriate adult.” This means that an appropriate adult worker is appointed to safeguard the rights, welfare and effective participation of children and vulnerable adults detained or questioned by the police. They must be present for a range of police processes including interviews, intimate searches and identification procedures.
Maxwell Confit’s murder remains unsolved. Throughout the investigations and the ensuing publicity, the victim seems to have been forgotten. Another miscarriage of justice?
Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian, Lewisham Local history and Archives Centre.
Do you remember the case? Do you remember Maxwell/Michelle from those days? If so, Wall to Wall Media, the makers of a BBC2 documentary would love to hear from you. Please get in touch with Sandy on 020 7241 9319, or firstname.lastname@example.org. All conversations and contacts will be treated with confidence and is not a commitment to take part in the documentary.