Author Jon Robins spoke to Matt Foot about the decades old campaign to clear the name of a man wrongly jailed for robbery in 1970.
The case of Tony Stock is one of the longest running miscarriages of justice and encapsulates all that is wrong with the criminal justice system. Stock was convicted in 1970 of an armed robbery and sentenced to ten years in prison. Juries get it wrong because the evidence they are presented supports a conviction. Invariably this is because the evidence itself has been distorted, or important evidence is ignored or hidden. The witness who identified Stock did so after being driven 71 miles with the investigating officer to Stock’s home. These circumstances obviously provide an incentive for a positive identification.
Robins reveals how the officer investigating Stock was investigated himself — and a police report recorded that he “was served with 90 discipline charges…and resigned before the hearing could take place”. The case looked shot through when someone unknown to Stock admitted being part of the robbery and that Stock was not part of the gang. However much the evidence was discredited, never underestimate the Court of Appeal’s ability to maintain a conviction. The tragedy for Stock was not just the initial conviction but that four times the Court of Appeal found ways to maintain the original conviction. Each time Tony Stock regrouped with support from others to try and clear his name. Jon Robins is one of the few remaining journalists who shine a light on such miscarriages of justice.
Why did you empathise with this case?
It’s an extraordinary story of one man’s 43-year campaign to clear his name — and it’s deeply sad that he ended up bashing his head against the brick wall of the criminal justice system. Stock had the promise of hope. Every time it came back to the Court of Appeal he thought this was the time that he would clear his name and his life could continue; each time his hopes were dashed. That drove him to some very dark places. Right from the start he said he was innocent and he went on a 93-day hunger strike when he was in Gartree prison in 1971.
When I met him he was about 72, a pensioner and a grandfather, and he told me he was spending his pension investigating the robbery in 1970. That human story resonated with me. Also I saw it as a narrative structure in which to look at the issue of miscarriages of justice. When I interviewed him the first time he said, “I would have been the first miscarriage of justice, before the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and Cardiff Three; each one was another nail in my coffin.”
The book became a way of exploring these issues around the justice system and in particular miscarriages of justice, as well as a personal story.
Why do you think he is innocent?
You can never have certainty but if there is one case where you can almost have certainty it’s Tony Stock’s. Everything points in one direction; everything tells the story of a man who was fitted up by corrupt police.
Why do you think the Court of Appeal kept turning it down, four times?
I hope to take people through the reasoning of the Court of Appeal, to expose that reasoning. There is a lack of humanity in the way the Court of Appeal looks at these cases. There’s that famous quote from Lord Denning [in refusing the Birmingham Six the right to challenge their convictions] that it would be such an appalling vista if they were innocent — with the Stock case they’ve had to play mental gymnastics to stick to this fiction that Tony Stock was part of a gang that committed this robbery.
The Court of Appeal only looks at whether the new evidence is enough to shake the safety of the conviction; it never looks at the whole picture. The whole picture says very persuasively that Tony Stock didn’t do it.
A lot of the case revolves around pre-PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) procedure; do you think the case of Tony Stock could happen today?
Not in the same way. What happened is ridiculous by contemporary standards. Even by the standards of 1970 it was pretty out of this world. Two police officers took the one witness 71 miles up the A1 in a Mini Cooper and arranged this confrontation in order to draw Tony Stock out of his house — and then all four of them got back into the Mini and drove all the way back to Leeds. That must have been a hell of a trip. By today’s standards it seems very far fetched and very Life on Mars.
Tony Stock passed away in 2012. What would overturning his conviction mean to family and friends left behind?
It would mean a huge amount. His fight to clear his name obsessed him. It ruined his first family — he divorced when he was in prison; they had four kids who were under the age of ten when he was sent down.
Three of those kids never really knew him and only met their half brother and half sister at the funeral. We had a book launch and they came and they were very curious to find out the basics of the case.
When we were telling them what went on their jaws were hitting the floor. When they were at school they were bullied because they were seen as the children of an armed robber. Tony Stock’s mother was treated horribly by the police. Those scars run very deep.
And, of course, Tony had a new family. He worked and set up his own business that went really well. Then there was the World in Action programme about the case in 1979 — the whole thing surfaced again and everyone thought it would be overturned and it wasn’t. That had a devastating impact on him.
That was the last time he worked properly in 1979. He always felt he had to clear his name and then life would continue. He was deprived of that opportunity.
When do you think the Criminal Cases Review Commission might make a decision in referring his case again?
I don’t know what sort of priority they will give to this case given he’s died and not in custody, but I think they should send it straight back to the Court of Appeal. It should take them about three minutes to sort out.
This is a case that my dad [campaigning journalist Paul Foot] also wrote about. What do you think is the importance of investigative journalism in fighting miscarriages of justice in this case and in general?
On a personal level it meant a huge amount to Tony to have journalists campaigning on his behalf. Tom Sargant was a campaigner who went the extra mile for Tony; he spent a huge amount of time writing letters and getting angry with ministers. Tony was used to people treating him like crap and Tom Sargant was a very posh bloke, and his support had a profound effect on Tony.
In 1996 when the case was ridiculously rejected by the Court of Appeal your father wrote an article entitled “Judge Dreadful” and it’s absolutely blistering. Tony was suicidal after the rejection and just to read that article meant a lot to him. I think journalists bring skills which lawyers don’t have to these cases. There was a time when the likes of the BBC and the Guardian regarded the investigation of miscarriages of justice with some broader public service ethos, which they would fund. They haven’t done that for years. [Investigative TV series] Rough Justice finished in 2007.
There’s a role for journalism to keep the issue alive, so that people are aware that miscarriages of justice are not some historic issue that died when we stopped banging up Irish men for crimes they didn't commit back in the 1980s. There are still issues now and the Tony Stock case demonstrates that, as does the case of Eddie Gilfoyle.
You founded the Justice Gap, can you explain why and what its role is?
The Justice Gap was launched three years ago to shine a light on those issues in the justice system not being covered properly in the mainstream media. The idea was to have a website which was about journalism and looking at the impact of the failure of the legal system to explore some of those issues. It’s not a banging the drum for lawyers or the law; it’s a critical take on both those things. The other area is around miscarriages of justice because there was room for a different type of debate around that topic.