Murder and police corruption convictions fast-tracked to appeal court as questions are raised about reliability and the cost of cultivating criminals
A series of supergrass convictions are being investigated for possible legal challenges amid growing concern over the safety of using such criminal witnesses and the millions of pounds spent to cultivate them.
In one of a string of cases being examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), a career criminal who was accused of murder turned supergrass on the eve of his jury trial. Damon Alvin went on to provide uncorroborated evidence which convicted another man for the killing.
The use of Alvin was unique, prosecutors said, the first case where a murder charge had been dropped against a defendant who went on to give testimony that jailed another man for life.
Essex police spent tens of thousands of pounds on Alvin, and allegedly facilitated the sale of his home while he was in prison from which he benefited by more than ?190,000. But intelligence showed the property had been bought from the proceeds of his criminal career and the money was liable for seizure under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Essex police refused to comment on the issue.
The Alvin case is being investigated by the CCRC for possible referral to the court of appeal amid claims that the whole system of using such witnesses is so discredited as to be unworkable.
The commission is also examining three convictions of former police officers found guilty of corruption on the basis of supergrass evidence.
The CCRC has fast-tracked their inquiries into these convictions, such is the concern over their safety.
The Guardian understands at least two more murder convictions are shortly to be submitted to the commission in applications that focus on the unreliability of evidence from criminal supergrasses.
Karen Todner, who represents the three former police officers, said: "I think there should be court of appeal guidelines on supergrass evidence. The use of such evidence has now been so discredited that I don't think there should be any future prosecutions that solely rely on it."
The new challenges come after a senior police officer likened the use of supergrasses to "dancing with the devil" and follow the collapse last year of three high- profile cases which cost tens of millions.
Documents obtained by the Guardian in the Alvin case show Essex police spent at least ?35,000 in five and a half months on the convicted drug dealer, who had a record for violence and burglary and a known involvement with firearms. The expenditure included giving him ?7,125 to buy a car, ?468 for a laptop and ?82.68 on an enclosure for his tortoises while he was being looked after by the police. Alvin was given a new identity as part of the witness protection programme and he and his family were relocated.
The man convicted on his evidence, Ricky Percival, 32, has been protesting his innocence for six years. He passed a lie detector test in prison last year and has passed the results to the CCRC.
The CCRC is fast-tracking an examination into the convictions of three former Metropolitan police officers, Thomas Kingston, Thomas Reynolds and Terance O'Connell, who were jailed over drug-related corruption in the south-east regional crime squad. The legitimacy of supergrass evidence is central to their case.
During an anti-corruption inquiry by the Met, Kingston and Reynolds were convicted in 2000 of conspiracy to supply a class B drug while O'Connell was convicted of intending to pervert the course of justice, on evidence provided by another officer who turned supergrass, Neil Putnam. Putnam had pleaded guilty to drugs offences for which he received a reduced sentence in return for his testimony.
The collapse of the case against two other officers was one of the high-profile failed supergrass prosecutions last year. Christopher Drury and Robert Clark were cleared of corruption charges after the Crown Prosecution Service abandoned their retrial when a drug dealer who had given evidence against them rescinded her testimony.
Eve Fleckney, who testified against Clark and Drury at their first trial when they were jailed for 10 and eight years for drugs offences, said she had no recollection of any criminality involving the two former detectives. Fleckney told the court that anti-corruption officers had threatened her with a long prison sentence unless she co-operated. "Sometimes they would be nice and sometimes horrible. They'd shout. I felt under threat. They controlled my life." Clark and Drury are now seeking compensation and damages from the Met.
Last year a ?30m case against three men for the murder of the private detective Daniel Morgan was brought down after evidence from three supergrass witnesses was found to be dangerous and totally unreliable. The star witness, Gary Eaton, a career criminal with psychiatric problems and convictions for bribing police, blackmail and firearms offences, was found to be a pathological liar. The trial judge ruled he had been "prompted and coached" by a senior police officer in the case.
An attempt by the CPS to use Eaton in a separate trial for conspiracy to murder failed when another judge ruled he was "not just unreliable, but highly dangerous".
Police spent more than ?70,000 on Eaton over 11 months and he was rewarded for his testimony, with 25 years being cut from the jail sentence he would have received for his own crimes. He has since been released.
Kevin Winter, a lawyer with close knowledge of the use of such witnesses, said there remained serious concerns about the supergrass process. "These people are ultimately self-serving and self-motivated," he said.
"Many are alleged criminals themselves whose credibility, integrity and reliability are very much suspect and subject to all sorts of concerns. The whole notion of relying solely on that person's testimony to send someone to prison for a very long time raises matters of great concern.
"There has to be the greatest scrutiny given to testing that individual and their credibility, the integrity of the whole process comes down to that."
The Association of Chief Police Officers lead on crime, Jon Murphy, and other senior officers have expressed concerns at the cost of using such witnesses and the reliability of their evidence. Murphy likened their use to "dicing with the devil".
The police have persisted with using supergrass or "assisting offenders" because they believe that in difficult to solve cases, where their investigations are met with a wall of silence as a result of gang loyalties and threats of violence, there is no alternative.
When the use of such witnesses with formalised in 2005 by the Serious Organised Crime Act, the-then home secretary David Blunkett argued that giving criminals who inform on others shorter sentences for providing information was essential to tackle the growing business and organised crime.
But the system is shrouded in secrecy. Since January 2006, 158 criminals have been recruited as witnesses across England and Wales. A freedom of information request by the Guardian ? requiring details of where they were used, the outcome of the trials and the number of cases won on appeal ? has been refused by the C
PS. Repeated requests to the CPS for more details on the cases have also been turned down.
A CPS spokeswoman said no more details could be released because of the danger of identifying individuals involved.