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8 February 2009
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George Davis was innocent, and I helped him prove it
8 February 2009
When Rose Davis, who died last week, told Robert Chesshyre that her husband had been falsely convicted of a brutal robbery, he was persuaded by her burning passion. Here he recalls how his coverage for the Observer 35 years ago helped launch a campaign that changed the nature of policing for ever
It was the era of Life on Mars. What cops said generally went, and fitting up known villains was all part of life's rich pattern in London's East End. Criminals took the rough with the smooth: wrongful conviction was an occupational hazard against which they had to be on their guard. Of course, no one welcomed being sent to jail for a crime he hadn't committed, but professional robbers recognised rough justice and tough luck. That was until George Davis came along.
Armed robbery - "blagging" - was the crime of choice for the big boys: cops and robbers used the argot of the The Sweeney. When, on 4 April 1974, five armed men robbed security guards at an Ilford, Essex, electricity showroom, shot a police officer, ran down another and led the police a merry dance through east London, hijacking four cars at gunpoint along the way, the story made the evening paper headlines but was soon forgotten.
The following January four men stood trial: two were acquitted; the jury failed to agree a verdict on a third; and the fourth, 33-year-old minicab driver Davis, was convicted and received 20 years (in those days a stiff term).
Shortly afterwards the Observer editorial driver, Jimmy Rennie, came into the room I shared with three other reporters. Jimmy not only drove the senior executives but also the reporters. He had a cousin with a story to tell that might interest me.
We set off for Bow near the Mile End Road, arriving at a small, council-built maisonette. Jimmy's cousin proved to be Rose, George Davis's wife. Where Jimmy was quiet and self-effacing, Rose was impassioned and articulate. She struck me as a brunette version of those feisty East End blondes played down the years by Barbara Windsor, the cockney sparrow with a heart of gold. Out poured Rose's version of the George Davis story: how he had been "verballed" (incriminating words added to his statement) and "stitched up" at identification parades.
I might have put her story down as the obsessions of a devastated wife looking ahead to many lonely years without her man, but there was no evading her burning belief in Davis's innocence. Rose had committed, convinced allies: the first "George Davis is innocent, OK" graffiti - later to become a rash across London and still occasionally to be seen in some of the more derelict areas of the East End - were appearing on bridges and walls. My curiosity was aroused.
First I had to convince the Observer's then editor, David Astor, that a possible miscarriage of justice was worth a reporter's time and the paper's limited editorial resources and space. Astor had moulded the Observer as the intelligent liberal flagship of the postwar press, but his interests were, on the whole, affairs of state, national policy, topics of concern to the great and the good.
Would he buy this tale of a hoodlum and his campaigning wife and friends? Was it worth the kind of effort we put into issues like Rhodesia, race, industrial relations and Northern Ireland? Astor had two main questions: did I genuinely think that Davis had been wrongfully convicted? And, if I did, was it of consequence, set against the lofty events with which paper then mainly concerned itself? I answered that the first had to yet to be proved, but that I had no doubt about the second.
With his head tucked characteristically on one side and sucking a mint, Astor pondered. It wasn't his sort of story, he said finally, but he could see that times were changing and that if a man had received 20 years in prison for a crime he hadn't committed, we shouldn't sleep easy until he had been freed. Astor was within a few months of retiring and conscious that sea changes lay head for his high-minded newspaper. "Keep me in touch," he said.
Initially guided by Rose, I spent the next few weeks in drinking dens in the East End. My companions were Davis's pals, who had thrown themselves into the "Free George Davis" campaign. I felt ambivalent about them: several had quite serious criminal convictions, but they were good company. The drink and anecdotes flowed, and - hoping that I would write a "George Davis is innocent" piece - they were nice to me. But occasionally I had to remind myself of what it might be like to face the wrong end of a sawn-off shotgun.
Davis's case was that he had been innocently and gainfully driving his minicab on the morning of the robbery. He had, he said, taken two elderly sisters to hospital, and indeed they had their appointment cards, but months later they were a bit vague and it was decided not to call them as witnesses. Other alibis were provided by people with criminal records, including the owner of the minicab company.
Davis and his associates lived in that demi-monde of street traders, car breakers, scrap-metal merchants in which petty (and sometimes more serious) crime then thrived. Davis's defence team was never likely to produce a string of vicars, solicitors and Rotarians to give alibis. I wrote at the time: "I could see why the jury might not believe one or two of the witnesses, who are not prepossessing people."
Davis's staunchest defender was Peter Chappell, by then already carrying out a bizarre series of protests against Davis's conviction; smashing a window at the British Embassy in Paris and driving his van into the gates of Buckingham Palace. Chappell swore that he saw Davis at 10am, the moment when the cops and robbers chase through the streets of Ilford was at its height. Chappell had been to prison, as had a publican whose testimony provided the alibi for the rest of the morning.
Although 308 items were produced in evidence, there was no forensic link between Davis and the robbery. The prosecution relied on identification evidence and Davis's supposed statement, which he claimed contained words made up and inserted by a police officer. Davis was picked out at an ID parade by three policemen - including one shot in the leg during the robbery - all of whom had been travelling in the same car. At a second series of ID parades held three months after the crime, 34 out of 39 witnesses failed to pick out Davis - and three made wrong identifications.
Two "mistakes" were made after Davis swapped his shirt with another man, who was then identified - an odd event at the very least. There were discrepancies between Davis's appearance - age 33, 6ft tall, 15½ stone, a round, almost cherubic, face and "a bit of a tummy" - and some of the initial descriptions made by police officers who picked him out. One detective said that the man he later identified as Davis was aged 40 to 45 and 5ft 6in tall, of slim build and with thin features. Davis was taken from the dock at the Old Bailey protesting his innocence.
I wrote my piece, summarising both sides of the case and presented it to Astor. I couldn't "prove" Davis was innocent, but at the very least he had suffered a grossly unsatisfactory trial. Astor agreed to run the article at length, starting it on the front page, but he was not prepared to have sensational headlines: "Justice and George Davis" ran the heading over the inside section of the story. It was Astor at his "fairest".
The story took off. Peter Chappell stepped up his campaign, three months later creating an international furore when he and one of Rose Davis's brothers, Colin, broke into the Headingley cricket ground at night during an Ashes Test. They dug holes in the pitch and poured oil on the wicket, causing the match to be abandoned, and daubed the now famous "George Davis is innocent, OK" on the walls. Wisden described the protesters as "vandals" and didn't stoop to mention Davis. For a while I was much in demand at TV studios, as the man who knew the story.
Davis was released a year after the Observer article appeared - the then home secretary, Roy Jenkins, used powers under the royal prerogative. Davis arrived at Waterloo station (from his Isle of Wight prison) to be ecstatically greeted by Rose and a phalanx of reporters. Rose went out of her way to thank the Observer
In part because of this case, the rules governing ID parades were tightened - the then Lord Chief Justice described them as "the most serious chink in our armour"; later "verbals" - words said to have been said - were all but outlawed; and eventually new avenues were opened for the challenge of wrongful convictions.
Sadly for the Davises, there was to be no happy ending. Davis not only started two-timing Rose, but 18 months later was caught red-handed on a bank raid. When he told Rose that he had again been fitted up, she replied: "And I'm the Queen of Sheba." She divorced him - "I was never a gangster's wife", she said, and returned to her life as a catering assistant and cleaner.
She phoned me recently. She was still grateful for the Observer's part in her campaign, but didn't want to discuss George. In 2004 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and - having written a memoir, The Wars of Rosie, published this year - she died, aged 67, last week. Jimmy Rennie retired from the Observer and died in 2002.
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