Turn-up for the books

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Thinking of people or cases that changed the law reminded me of the master escaper and burglar Alfie Hinds.

He was convicted of a 1953 robbery mainly on the bitterly contested evidence of chief superintendent Herbert Sparks, who claimed to have found dust in Hinds’ trouser turn-ups, something which Hinds said had been planted by Sparks. In 1957 he was convicted in front of a hostile Lord Goddard who gave him 12 years.

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Throughout his sentence Hinds repeatedly escaped, taking the opportunity to proclaim his innocence while on the run. Then, as was the custom in the 1960s, on his retirement Sparks published his memoirs in The People saying: ‘I think it is a pity Alfie could not take his medicine manfully.’

This was the safebreaker’s chance. He sued for libel. Sparks did not make a good witness and suffered in cross-examination by the genial James Comyn, who also destroyed the scientific evidence. When Sparks put his head in his hands a member of the public gallery yelled: ‘He’s doing a Challoner’ (a reference to one of the West End officers then in disgrace). Despite another adverse summing up, the jury awarded Hinds £1,300.

Against Comyn’s advice, Hinds went back to the Court of Appeal, which upheld his conviction. The general feeling in the underworld was that Sparks had, indeed, planted the evidence and that Hinds had, indeed, committed the robbery. The law was changed shortly after to prevent the Hindses of this world suing in the civil courts to try to overturn a criminal conviction. Hinds later went on to lecture in criminology and became a successful property developer. He was also alleged to have been involved in the death of his one-time friend, the receiver Tony Maffia, something he vehemently denied. Sparks died a bitter man, warning other ex-officers against publishing their memoirs.

It was around that time that I was defending two men for robbery who were also faced with sweepings in their turn-ups. ‘It has to have been planted,’ said one. ‘Yes,’ added the other helpfully, ‘we burned our clothes after the job’. And so, sadly, off they went to other solicitors, by which time they would have learned the pokerwork motto: ‘Before opening mouth, engage brain’.

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