Raphael Blake Rowe is an investigative journalist, best known for his work with BBC Panorama. Rowe was convicted in 1990 of murder and a series of robberies as part of the M25 Three. After twelve years in prison, the convictions of Rowe and his two co-defendants, Michael George Davis and Randolph Egbert Johnson, were ruled "unsafe" in July 2000. They had lost their first appeal in 1993.
Rowe was born and brought up in southeast London. Described in court as a "career criminal", he had previous convictions, including malicious wounding.
At some time between 11 p.m and 12.30 a.m, an armed gang of three men wearing balaclavas and driving a stolen green Triumph Spitfire approached a car in Chelsham, Surrey in which Peter Hurburgh and Alan Eley were having sex. The gang dragged the two men from the car and tied them up, then stripped and beat them. The gang then poured petrol over the two men, and Eley lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, Hurburgh was dead, having sustained five fractured ribs and a fractured sternum, which had bruised his heart leading to death from cardiac arrest.
New evidence, uncovered by the BBC Rough Justice program in 1998, revealed the victim Alan Eley had told the police and witnesses that the attack took place just after midnight, and not 2 a.m, as he claimed in court. Timings of the offenses were critical at the original trial.
The assailants abandoned the green Spitfire at the scene and stole Hurburgh's car, an Austin Princess, which they then drove around the M25 to Oxted. Here, at around 3.40 a.m, they broke into a home belonging to Richard Napier, then aged 66, who lived with his wife and 40-year-old son Timothy. The gang threatened the family with a knife and two handguns, one of which was described as a revolver. Timothy sustained multiple knife wounds and Mrs Napier was instructed to remove her rings and jewellery. She was told that if she refused her fingers would be cut off. The house was ransacked and after 20–30 minutes, the robbers left, taking Timothy's Toyota Corolla which had been parked near the house. Hurburgh's Austin was found abandoned 100 yards (90 m) from the Napiers' house.
The gang then drove around the M25 to Fetcham, where at 5 a.m. they broke into the house of Rosemary Spicer and her boyfriend Peter Almond, who were threatened with a handgun, tied up and gagged while the house was ransacked. After forty-five minutes to an hour the gang left in a Renault 5 and a Vauxhall Cavalier stolen from Spicer and Almond; Timothy Napier's Toyota was later found nearby.
Identification of Perpetrators
The victims gave statements to the police immediately after the offences took place. They described the robbers as two white men and one black man.
They said they saw the colour of the men's skin through the masks they were wearing in fairly well-lit surroundings, and over long periods of time.
The first victim, Eley, told Mr Gentles, the occupant of the house from where Eley raised the alarm, that the assailants were two white and one black man.
When Eley was asked "What did they look like?", by the first police officer who attended the scene, Mr Eley said "two white men and a coloured man wearing masks".
When giving his first detailed statement to the police at the police station, Eley stated, "I can say that one of these men was definitely white skinned because at some stage I noticed that through the eye hole in the balaclava".
The first police officer to take descriptions from the second victims, Mr and Mrs Napier, immediately after the offence, wrote in his police notebook (not disclosed to the defence or jury at the trial) what each victim told him:
Mr Napier - "The Negro had a gun.... the black youth. My son was stabbed in the struggle by one of the white youths."
Mrs Napier - "The black youth had a knife. The black youth smelt unclean. The black youth had a blue balaclava on."
Mr Napier - "It was one of the white youths who stabbed my son. The black youth appeared to be the leader."
In his official witness statement to the police a few hours later, Mr Napier said "I will now describe the men as I remember them. The first man who came into my bedroom was coloured, I would say of African origin. He was wearing a dark blue or black helmet. The eye holes seemed ragged as if they had been cut out. His colouring was light brown. He seemed to have a well filled oval face. The first man I saw with the dagger of knife was white.....similar height and build as the coloured man. He had fair hair, longish. He was wearing a rust coloured balaclava. I seem to remember he had blue eyes. The third man was white I believe."
Miss Spicer, the victim of the third offense said in her official statement to the police, "I could not tell if they were black or white, but I came to the conclusion that they were white or at least the one who did most of the talking was a white man."
From the detailed descriptions given to the police they issued appeals for information through national TV and newspapers.
In The Daily Telegraph 19 December 1988, Detective Chief Supt. Vincent McFadden, head of Surrey CID, who was heading the hunt, said he received high quality information and that "...he was confident the information from the public meant the net was closing around the two white men and one black man, all thought to be in their 20s."
Rowe and Davis were arrested on the morning of 19 December 1988 at the probation hostel they shared in Sydenham, London and initially taken to Oxted Police Station. Johnson was apprehended on 6 January 1989, at which time he was found to be in possession of a revolver. Some of the items stolen during the Oxted and Fetcham robberies were recovered from the bail hostel. Davis' fingerprints were found on porcelain figures, although unconnected to the robberies and murder, in the same cupboard inside the bail hostel. The remaining items from the robberies were discovered at the flat of a key prosecution witness, Mark Jobbins.
In total, twelve people at the hostel were arrested, including Shane Griffins and Mark Jobbins. A further suspect, Norman Duncan, was already in police custody.
Raphael Rowe, with light brown skin, brown eyes and shoulder length dark brown dreadlocks, did not fit the description of the perpetrators.
Michael Davis, with dark brown skin, brown eyes and shoulder length black dreadlocks, did not fit the description of the perpetrators.
Randolph Johnson, with dark brown skin, brown eyes and short black hair, did not fit the description of the perpetrators.
Norman Duncan, a key prosecution witness, with white skin, blue eyes and fair hair, fit the description given by at least one of the victims.
Mark Jobbins and Shane Griffin are also white.
Duncan, Jobbins and Griffin, admitted handling and hiding stolen property from the robberies in the flat of Jobbing's girlfriend, stealing the Triumph Spitfire used to arrive at the murder scene, possessing the air pistol used by the gang and dumping the Cavalier and Renault stolen from the final robbery.
Case against Rowe, Davis and Johnson
Griffin and Duncan admitted stealing the green Triumph Spitfire used by the gang that murdered Hurburgh, but testified that they had stolen it at the request of Rowe, on 13 December 1988. They claimed that it had been kept at the bail hostel until the evening of 15 December when Rowe, Davis and a third man, whom they did not know but who was alleged by the prosecution to be Johnson, had asked them for assistance to "bump start" the vehicle, between 11:00 pm and midnight (allegations they did not make until their fingerprints were found on the vehicle).
They also testified that Rowe had asked them for balaclavas. This same group of witnesses claimed that Rowe and Davis had returned on the morning of 16 December in the stolen Renault and Vauxhall with a quantity of items, the proceeds of the robberies, which they helped to unload and hide. They alleged that they were then asked to dispose of the stolen vehicles, with the warning that they were a "bit warm" and that they would have to be burned completely to remove all identification.
The police forensic experts examined the green Triumph Spitfire at the scene of the murder. They later found the fingerprints belonging to known criminals, Mark Jobbins and Norman Duncan. The allegation that they were asked by Rowe to 'bump start' the green Triumph Spitfire was, the defense argued, a concocted story to explain why their fingerprints were on the car.
The Triumph Spitfire
In the early hours of 10 December 1988, Griffin met Duncan- an old friend- at a party in South London. Duncan's claim of homelessness led Griffin to invite him to share his room at the bail hostel. Jobbins already shared this room with Griffin.
Later that day, a witness identified as Mr Martin Membury observed the three: Griffin, Duncan and Jobbins, examining his green Triumph Spitfire parked in his drive. Two days later in the early hours of 12 - 13 December 1988, Griffin and Duncan drove back to Mr Membury's drive in a stolen mini motor car. Whilst Duncan kept watch, Griffin forced the ignition and stole the green automobile.
Duncan and Griffin went on to claim that on 12 December 1988, Rowe requested the two men to, on his behalf, steal an MG motor car for use as spare parts; however, they mistakenly stole the referenced Triumph Spitfire. Rowe set forth to challenge the allegation, citing Mr Membury's evidence that he had witnessed three white men examining the green car on 10 December. Further supporting Rowe's challenge, the theft actually took place two days earlier than the alleged request being made.
The fact that Griffin and Duncan abandoned the stolen Mini car they were driving after stealing the Spitfire on 13 December 1988, further supported the defense argument that the Spitfire was stolen not at the direction of Rowe, but rather for/by their own selves and for each their own independent purposes. Finding the abandoned vehicle at the scene showed further implications of a consistency in abandoning the cars on the night during which the murder took place.
At the trial, several independent eyewitnesses told the jury that they had seen the Triumph Spitfire near the crime scene, but their provided times proposed further issues in that the sworn-in times ultimately presented a direct conflict with the prosecutions case that saw three black men on trial.
Miss Karen Garrett, a school teacher, and her boyfriend Mr Malcolm Macdonald, stated that they went for a drink in the White Bear public house at about 9 p.m on the evening of 15 December 1988. (This was the same pub where Mr Hurburgh and his friend Mr Ely were drinking before they were attacked, and Mr Hurburgh was killed).
However, upon arrival they decided not to stay or have any drinks there as they weren't fond of the live band playing on that evening. They then left and set out toward the public houses car park. While walking to the car, Mr MacDonald recalled, pulling into the car park, a green Triumph Spitfire which he then pointed out to Miss Garrett.
At the trial the judge- Mr Justice Auld- said, if Karen Garrett and her boyfriend saw the same green Triumph Spitfire in the car park at the White Bear public house at about 9.15 p.m, as that which was later found near the murder scene, the prosecution's case against Rowe and Davis then becomes even more impossible. Having agreed with the defense that Rowe and Davis were in the company of four witnesses eight miles away at 9.15 p.m., this prosecutorial claim warrants no need for any further fiction.
Before the trial the defence did not investigate whether it was possible for another green Triumph Spitfire to also have been near the murder scene at 9:15 p.m because such a scenario seemed improbable.
Following Mr Justice Auld's suggestion of such a 'possibility' in his summary and the convictions, this issue became of paramount importance to the defense case upon preparation for an appeal.
Before the defence could conduct their own investigations, the LWT and Trevor Phillips at the London Programme working with defence solicitors revealed that such a scenario was indeed impossible.
Mark Hugall, who is area organiser for Triumph Sports owners, stated on the LWT London Programme broadcast in October 1992, "In 1988 I was the Surrey area organiser as I still am now. I've never seen another British Racing Green or green Spitfire Mark 3 in this area or even coming to our meetings or even to a national meeting. Green was a very unpopular colour as it is today still. The likelihood of seeing a British Racing Green Mark 3 is very low but to see two on one evening is, is virtually impossible."
Mr Membury, a car dealer as well as the owner of the stolen green Triumph Spitfire, also confirmed that all throughout on his travels around the South East and London he had yet to encounter another Triumph Spitfire of the same green color; he ultimately had to go as far as Southampton in order to purchase the green Triumph Spitfire to begin with. This crucial information was not available to the defence at the trial.
Mr David Ivens, a witness who was interviewed by the police, also confirmed that he saw the green Triumph Spitfire abandoned in the field two hundred yards from the White Bear Pub and scene of the murder between 10 - 10:30 p.m. on 15 December 1988.
The two sightings of the green Triumph Spitfire, at times when Rowe and Davis had concrete alibis, was further compounded by the evidence of a crucial witness, Mr Peter Fyffe. He stated that on 15 December 1988, he took his family and some friends to the Horse of The Year show at Olympia. After leaving the stadium at 11.30 p.m. he dropped his friends’ home and continued to drive home along Blackmans lane. As he reached Skidhill Lane junction at 12.30 a.m. he saw through the headlights a Triumph Spitfire parked in the field opposite. Mr Fyffe said the car was green and had a Union Jack on the wing.
The trial judge said in his summing up: "The relevance of that evidence is that it marks the time of the arrival of the robbers, whoever they were, at the scene of their first offence that night. It is conceded by Mr Bevan - indeed, it is inevitable, is it not, that the Spitfire seen by Mr Fyffe in his headlights as he drove home from Olympia that night, must have been this very Spitfire stolen from Mr Membury by Griffin and Duncan."
Rowe, Davis, Paula Martinez, Siobhan Cavannagh, Tracy Pooley and Kate Williamson were together in Davis' flat socialising on 15 December 1988 between 8 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. At about 10.30 p.m. Miss Pooley suggested that the group went to her parents’ house.
At about 10.45 p.m. Rowe, Davis and the four girls left and caught a bus to visit the Pooley household. Miss Martinez decided to go home and remained on the bus when the rest got off. Miss Pooley's mother Jennifer, sister Sharon, brother Tony and Justin Frost, a solicitor's clerk, were all at the Pooley house.
At 11.30 p.m. Miss Cavanagh went home. At midnight Sharon Pooley offered to drive Rowe, Davis and Williamson, who planned to spend the night with Rowe, back to their flat as she also had to take her boyfriend Frost home.
At 12.20 a.m., they all left. Rowe, Davis and Williamson were dropped off at their flat at about 12.30 a.m.
Mrs Jennifer Pooley, the mother, stated at the trial, "I remember an occasion on the 15 December 1988, when Tracy brought some friends home. Those friends were Raphael Rowe, Michael Davis and Kate Williamson........I do remember quite specifically the time at which Tracy's friends departed, it was at 12.20 a.m. I remember looking at the clock because my daughter Sharon's boyfriend left with them...........his name was Justin Frost".
Mr Frost told the trial jury that he did not know Rowe and Davis and had only met them when they were introduced to him at the Pooley house on the night of 15 December 1988. He went on to explain how he drove them back to their flat with Williamson on the night of the 15th arriving at 12.30 a.m. Davis went straight to his room and Rowe and Williamson went to Rowe's room.
Rowe and Davis defence accused the police and key witnesses of conspiring to fabricate evidence to ensure three black men were convicted of crimes that the victims described were committed by two white men and one black man.
Stolen Renault and Vauxhall cars
The statement by John Malcolm Steven, a crucial witness to the disposal of the Renault and Vauxhall, was withheld by the police at the time of the trial.
His statement dated: 17 December 1988 read:
On Saturday 17 December 1988. At about 7.10 a.m I was walking my dog in Foots Cray Meadow, Sidcup. As i passed near to a wooded area next to the council burning section which is a fenced area, I saw two vehicles parked. One was a white Renault 5 motor car and the other a red Vauxhall saloon. I noticed two men standing near the cars. One man was stood near the drivers door of the white case. He I'm sure was a white. Probably about 5'10" tall. I am unable to say much more about this man except to say he was wearing a full length blue or black mac. The second man was stood on the passenger side of the white car. All I can say about him is that he was also a white man. On seeing these two cars I realised what they were and so I turned to home and phoned the police. It is my opinion that at least one of these men must be local to this spot.
This evidence hit the Sunday paper headlines:-
I CAME FACE TO FACE WITH MACHETE KILLER GANG" screamed the News OF The World headline on the 18th December 1988. The article underneath the headline stated "SHOCKED John Stevens told yesterday how he came face to face with the kill-for-kicks gang and escaped. He was on a 7 am walk with his dog when he came across two men with the getaway cars stolen from one of the gang's victims". Quoting Mr Stevens the article stated "They looked up at me and I knew instantly that something was wrong. I'd seen an alert for the cars on TV and I knew these blokes don't mess around.
On 19 December 1988, two days later, Raphael Rowe and Michael Davis were arrested. That same day, another statement was taken from Mr Stevens. The following is a word-for-word excerpt from that statement.
At about 7.10 a.m on the morning of Saturday 17 December 1988....I saw two cars parked neatly beside each other.... although the cars were some distance away I could see that one was a Renault 5 and the other a red Cavalier.... A man was standing by the drivers side of the white Renault car. He was looking over the roof of the car at another man who was standing on the passenger side of the white Renault... I can say that the man on the drivers side of the car was about 5'8" to 5'10" tall and he was wearing ga full length dark blue or black macintosh..... I am unable to give and description of the other man whatsoever.
Following the arrest of Rowe and Davis the witness seems to leave out the colour of the two men he saw and described in his original statement. The two white men seen by Mr Stevens have never been caught, so they have never been questioned or eliminated from the M25 Crimes.
Norman Duncan became a chief prosecution witness at the trial of the three black men, Rowe, Davis and Johnson, accused of the M25 crimes. One aspect of his evidence was that he admitted that he and two other white men, Shane Griffin and Mark Jobbins, were responsible for unloading property stolen from the robberies out of the Renault and Vauxhall cars, into the flat of Jobbins girlfriend before dumping the cars at the spot the witness Mr John Stevens described.
However, Duncan, Griffin and Jobbins claim they dumped and attempted to burn the two cars at about midnight on the 17 December 1988, not at 7.am as described by Mr Stevens. Both accounts could not be true so one or the other must be lying. Mr Stevens had no reason to lie.
Kate Williamson, a key prosecution witness told the police that on the night of the 15th December 1988, after returning to Rowe's flat at 12.30 a.m, Rowe left her at approximately 1.30 a.m and did not return until around 6.30 a.m. Williamson also claimed that Rowe gave her two rings, later found to have been taken during the Napier robbery, a watch found to have been taken from the Spicer robbery, and a watch strap from the Napier robbery.
She handed all of the items to the police on 19th December 1988. The Police also claim to have found a brooch taken in the Spicer robbery in a waste paper basket in Rowe's room. Williamson gave further evidence that when Rowe had left on the Thursday evening he had been wearing a particular type of distinctive footwear, and imprints made by this type of boot were found in a flowerbed at the Napier home and in blood in the Napiers' hall.
Rowe consistently maintained he did not leave his flat. The items of clothing mentioned in her statements were never produced by the police and Rowe claimed the evidence was fabricated.
In a letter sent to Rowe by Williamson, whilst he was on remand in Brixton prison, she admitted she lied through jealousy and that she sought revenge because Rowe had been "two-timing her with her friend".
It was also suggested by the defence that Williamson was having a relationship with Duncan, one of the other key witnesses against Rowe and that the jewellery she handed to the police had been given to her by Duncan and not Rowe.
Rowe also denied owning a pair of the alleged boots Williamson claimed he took from a bag. Hundreds of photos of Rowe prior to his arrest were examined by the police and none showed him wearing any boots of the description given by Williamson.
The defence argued that the prosecution witnesses, whose evidence led to the convictions, were either involved in the crimes or that their motivation when making their allegations against Rowe, Davis and Johnson was the £25,000 reward offered to those who could help the police convict the persons responsible for the "M25 Crimes".
A BBC Rough Justice investigation in 1998, 10 years after the arrest of Rowe, Davis and Johnson, uncovered evidence that Duncan had indeed received some of the reward for his evidence. This information was withheld from the defence at the trial in 1990 and again by the Court of Appeal in 1993.
It was also suspected that Williamson also received money from the police.
Trial and conviction
The original trial took place at the Old Bailey between January and February 1990, resulting in all three being convicted in March of the murder of Hurburgh, causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Timothy Napier and several robberies. Each was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder and given substantial sentences for the other offences.
The first appeal was heard on 23 July 1993. It was then disclosed that reward money had been paid for information leading to the three men's conviction but not the name or names of the recipients, which their lawyers claimed was vital to their case, since those alleged to have received payments might also have been suspects, and had been promised immunity from prosecution in return for information. It later emerged that Duncan had received £10,300 in reward money from the Daily Mail, which was not disclosed to the jury when he gave evidence at the original trial.
The appeal was rejected, with the court stating: "Taking all the evidence relating to the timing and events on the Thursday night and the succeeding days into account we conclude that, on the whole of the material we have reviewed, there is no basis for saying there is even a lurking doubt about the safety of the convictions of Rowe and Davis, the same applies to Johnson. On the contrary, the case against them all was, and remains, a formidable one."
Criminal Cases Review Commission
In 1997, the Criminal Cases Review Commission appointed an investigating officer from Greater Manchester Police to carry out enquiries into the case, and in January 1999 the investigating officer submitted his report. The report concluded that:
The new evidence and arguments... create a real possibility that Mr Johnson was not one of those three persons. Whilst there is evidence specifically linking Messrs Rowe and Davis to the robberies, if the prosecution against one of the three, Mr Johnson, might no longer be sustainable, in the Commission's view the Court of Appeal ought at the same time have the opportunity to consider whether the case can still be sustained against Messrs Rowe and Davis.
European Court of Human Rights judgment
In 1994, Davis and Rowe made an application to the European Court of Human Rights. On 16 February 2000 the court returned its judgment in respect of Davis and Rowe, finding that there had been a violation of Article 6 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically the failure to disclose Duncan's status as an informant prior to trial together with the fact that he had become eligible for a reward and may have implicating others as suspects before later accusing Johnson.
2000 Appeal Court hearing, convictions overturned
Commencing on 14 June 2000, at the hearings conclusion, the court stated that:
We cannot say that any of these convictions is safe. They must be quashed and the appeals allowed. Ten years on it is not appropriate to order a retrial.
The three men were released from prison on 17 July 2000 when their convictions were overturned after being ruled "unsafe" by the Court of Appeal. In the ruling, Lord Justice Mantell, Mr Justice Blofeld and Mrs Justice Rafferty were emphatic that although the convictions were unsafe, they were not declaring the men innocent: "[T]he case against all three appellants was formidable. The evidence against Rowe was overwhelming... For the better understanding of those who have listened to this judgment and of those who may report it hereafter this is not a finding of innocence, far from it." On his release, Rowe said:
I know the judges were involved in a damage limitation exercise. But what they said was diabolical. They didn't say I was guilty, but that's how everyone interpreted it. I have battled every day of the last 12 years to prove I was set up by the police, to prove I am not a murderer. It has been my passion. I am free now, but it's as if I'm still inside. I'm still trying to get my voice heard.
The judgment also highlighted a "conspiracy to give perjured evidence" between some police officers and a key prosecution witness.
Academics have reviewed and commented on the appeal court judges’ comments and concluded, "As with other cases, perjury, deceit and injustice have been reduced to “irregularities”, enhancing, where still possible, the fallacious notion that miscarriages of justice are merely about "technicalities".
During his time in prison, Rowe studied journalism via a correspondence course. Following his release, after a year travelling the world, Rowe joined BBC Radio 4's Today programme, as a reporter. He then became a reporter on the BBC Six O'Clock News, and a reporter on BBC Panorama. Rowe is currently a reporter on the BBC One series The One Show and Sunday Morning Live.
In 2018, Rowe hosted Seasons 2 and 3 of the documentary Inside the World's Toughest Prisons produced by London-based Emporium Productions and commissioned by Netflix. Season 1 had been hosted by Irish journalist Paul Connolly. Rowe drew on parallels with his own past 12-year prison experience as he visited the prisons for the documentary. Rowe also appeared in the BBC Two series, 'Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago'.
After the arrest and conviction of Barry George at the Old Bailey on 2 July 2001 for the murder of BBC news presenter Jill Dando, George was sentenced to life imprisonment. Concern about this conviction was widespread on the basis that the case against George appeared thin. Two appeals were unsuccessful, but after Rowe filmed a Panorama report which discredited forensics evidence that was included in the prosecution's case, George's third appeal succeeded in November 2007. The original conviction was quashed and a second trial lasting eight weeks ended in George's acquittal on 1 August 2008.