Murder that changed the way police operated…

Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Maxwell Confait, 26, at his home in Doggett Road Catford, writes local historian Julie Robinson. The case became a classic cause celebre and miscarriage of justice. It also led to the biggest shake up in policing in British history.

Mr Confait was a bi-racial, gay man or trans woman from the Seychelles, who dressed in women’s clothes and preferred to be called Michelle.

His body was found after a fire in the early hours of April 22, 1972.

Two days later there were other fires in the area at Ladywell Fields, Catford Bridge railway station and a derelict house.

The police quickly arrested three youths for the murder.

The three made confessions, later retracted because the boys said they had been threatened or hit by the police.

Their confessions were obtained without an adult present despite the fact that this was against the “Judges’ Rules”.

All the boys had alibis for when the police pathologist said that death had occurred.

Despite this, on November 1972, one was convicted of manslaughter and arson, another was found guilty of murder, arson and burglary and the third was found guilty of burglary and arson.

An appeal was rejected in July 1973.

A long-running public campaign to release all three was launched.

Christopher Price, MP for Lewisham took up their case as did the National Council for Civil Liberties. A 50-minute documentary about the case was screened on ITV in November 1974.

The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins referred the case to the Appeal Court where all three convictions were quashed in October 1975.

Lord Scarman criticised the police for their handling of the case and a judicial enquiry, the Fisher Enquiry was held leading to the controversial Fisher Report which declared the boys “guilty “ but was critical of the police.

A Royal Commission on Criminal procedure (1979-1981) followed which in turn led to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 and the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.

PACE created a code of police practice for the first time and safeguards around powers of search, the treatment of suspects in custody and the requirement to record interviews.

Safeguards for children and vulnerable people were also established including the requirement for a “responsible adult” to be present and support them.

The Prosecution of Offences Act set up the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and took the right to prosecute away from the police to the CPS.

These were far-reaching changes to the criminal justice system and how the police operate which continue to shape the system to this day.

Although an undoubted improvement, they are no guarantee that the police will follow the rules as the recent outrage of a black teenage girl strip-searched by Met officers at a London school without a responsible adult present shows.

Further police enquiries into the Confait case did not result in a successful prosecution and the case remains unsolved to this day.

Main Photo: Maxwell Confait is buried in Heather Green Cemetery Picture: Julie Robinson




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