How A Controversial Law Led To A Young Man Being Deported For A Murder He Didn't Even Witness
Last year a landmark ruling gave hope of appeal to hundreds convicted under the criticised legal doctrine of joint enterprise. But it came too late for Edward Conteh.
On Friday, Edward Conteh was put on a plane at Gatwick and flown to Belgium, deported as a convicted killer.
But Conteh maintains he is innocent, that he did not kill 16-year-old Nicholas Pearton in 2011. The courts agree – it was never suggested Conteh played any active role in the crime, but yet he was convicted of manslaughter, imprisoned for years, and, now, deported.
"It doesn’t seem right for them to send me away for something I didn’t do,” said Conteh, whose case has been followed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) for the last three years.
Sixteen years old at the time, Conteh was convicted using a controversial law called joint enterprise, which allows prosecutors to scoop up groups of suspects and prosecute them for the same crime.
The doctrine has been described as a “drift net” and critics warn it can lead to those on the periphery of a crime being unduly punished by association.
In February last year the UK Supreme Court ruled that the law had been “wrongly interpreted” for more than 30 years, in a landmark judgment that gave hope that some convictions could be appealed.
Conteh’s lawyer Raja Rajeswaran Uruthiravinayagan said that following the ruling, “there is a very good basis to say that our client may have been a victim of substantial injustice".
His case is being considered by the Criminal Case Review Commission, the first step towards getting his conviction appealed. But for Conteh that might be too late.
His family, who are originally from Sierra Leone but live in London, have Belgian passports, so he was categorised as a foreign national prisoner.
That meant that once he had served his prison sentence he was moved straight to immigration detention. He was detained there for a year, let out on bail only to be picked up again. He spent a total of 17 months in immigration detention, until he was deported.
“The system just wants to keep me trapped, not let me do anything. I turned 23 in this place, I missed Christmas with my family."
“I’m being punished for something I did not do,” Conteh, now 23, told TBIJ. “I was young at the time, I was 16, and I’m still getting punished for it, it’s not fair. It makes me feel let down by the system and now by immigration authorities too.”
Three years ago his mother, Memunatu, was already worrying about what would happen if her son was deported. “When he goes they’ll give the Belgian police everything and tell them that Edward is a criminal,” she said. “And his family is all here, he doesn’t have anyone there, that can make someone go crazy.”
Campaign group JENGBA (Joint Enterprise: Guilty by Association) is cataloguing more than 600 cases of joint enterprise. It says many of those could be classed as foreign national prisoners, meaning deportation is likely.
Gloria Morrison, who founded JENGBA, said she was worried that other people who could appeal their convictions might also be deported before they can process their claims through the courts.
“We’re really concerned that the Home Office will not address joint enterprise as a serious concern in terms of miscarriage of justice,” she said.
“They will just say the convictions are safe and deport them. Our position is none of the convictions are safe because the law was wrong.”
She is concerned that now Conteh is out of the country, he, and others like him, will find it hard to appeal their convictions.
“Edward just wants his name cleared, he’s innocent,” said Morrison. “But we think it will be much harder now. The CCRC has such an overworked case load – they will probably just look at those already out of prison and those cases will go to the bottom of the pile.”
When asked if immigration officials would factor in joint enterprise appeals, a Home Office spokesperson said: "Foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crimes in the UK should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them and we have removed more than 33,000 foreign offenders since 2010.
"All those given a custodial sentence are considered for removal.”
When he was just 16 years old Conteh was arrested and charged along with six other teenagers after Nicholas Pearton, also 16, was fatally stabbed following a confrontation in Sydenham, southeast London.
CCTV footage shows Conteh was nowhere near the stabbing when it happened; instead he was lingering inside a park, messing around with a bicycle.
A minor at the time, Conteh, was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter and he served out his time at HMP Isis. There he told TBIJ: “Prison is a hard place, just want to leave now, that’s all I think about: getting home.”
But once he had completed his sentence Conteh was transferred straight to Dover removal centre, where he stayed for a year.
Eventually he was allowed out of detention and was told to sign in once a week with immigration control. In the following year he completed several courses with the Prince’s Trust, got a job on a construction site, and found himself a girlfriend.
He turned 22 and spent his first birthday with his family since he turned 16. “I was doing positive things,” he said, “I was doing driving lessons and abiding with probation, it was good.”
But it did not last.
“One day I went to sign in and they said you have an interview. Then they said 'oh we’re going to detain you, you’re going to Brooke House', and that was it, there’s no process or court or nothing.”
Last week, sat in the removal centre, as airplanes roared off from Gatwick airport, Conteh explained what it was like to go from prison to detention and live with the threat of removal hanging over him.
“It’s not giving me [any] prospect to do anything with my life,” he said, glancing nervously around at the other detainees in the room. “The system just wants to keep me trapped, not let me do anything. I turned 23 in this place, I missed Christmas with my family. The only Christmas I had with my family was last year [when out on bail], we all spent it together, and this year I wasn’t with my family.
“It’s definitely not easy, what I am going through at the moment." Just one week later he would be deported.
Joint enterprise, a legal doctrine introduced in the 18th century to discourage duels, allows for people to be convicted of a crime if they played a supporting role or could have foreseen the outcome. It has allowed for the conviction of criminal gangs, contract killers and even the murderers of Stephen Lawrence.
But the law has come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2014, the justice select committee recommended an “urgent review” into the doctrine. Then in 2016, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling warning the use of the law had gone too far.
When it comes to new prosecutions, it appears those warnings have been heeded.
New data uncovered by TBIJ reveals that the rate at which joint enterprise is being used has slowed down.
Back in 2013 around 17% of all homicide prosecutions involved four or more defendants, according to TBIJ’s research. The latest figures show that in 2016, that had dropped to just 13%.
But lawyers warn that the changes have not necessarily made it easier to appeal.
A Court of Appeal ruling in October 2016 damped hopes by finding against two high-profile joint enterprise appeals.
Solicitor Simon Natas has around 10 cases before the CCRC, but he has already had one case rejected. He warns that a Court of Appeal ruling in October has made it “very hard ... by establishing a test for substantial injustice that is difficult to meet”.
Last night and this morning, calls to Conteh's phone were going straight to voicemail.