Socialist Worker

Michael Menson: Verdict exposes police racism

Issue No. 1678

Michael Menson

Verdict exposes police racism

by Hassan Mahamdallie

MICHAEL MENSON was murdered. We now know this, but no thanks to the police. Mario Pereira and Harry Charalambous Constantinou were jailed at the Old Bailey on 21 December 1999 for killing the black musician. Another man, Ozgay Cevat, had already been jailed in Cyprus for Michael's murder.

Michael was set on fire by the three men in January 1997 as he waited for a bus in north London. He died of his horrendous burns two weeks later. The day after Michael died a London inquest jury returned a verdict of "unlawful killing" in the case of Stephen Lawrence. Yet it is clear that nothing had changed in the police's treatment of black murder victims. All the mistakes and assumptions made by the Metropolitan Police in the Lawrence case were repeated in the Menson case. Later on they would be repeated again in the Ricky Reel case.

After the Old Bailey trial John Grieve of the Metropolitan Police's Race and Violent Crimes Task Force tried to claim some credit for solving the Menson murder. It was he who had secured the convictions after bugging Constantinou's flat. The bug caught Pereira and Constantinou discussing the murder and using racist language to describe their victim. After the Old Bailey verdict Grieve paid tribute to the family, saying, "Their campaign was really pivotal, a model of keeping an investigation in the public mind."

But it was not "the public" that Michael's brothers and sisters had to battle against. It was the Metropolitan Police they had to push all the way. Right up until an inquest jury in September 1998 unanimously delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, the police told the family that Michael had set fire to himself. This was despite Michael telling police who arrived on the scene that he had been set alight. He also told nurses the same thing. He told his family he had been attacked. The family told the police, yet officers never even took a statement from Michael, despite being urged to do so.

The police never cordoned off the area where Michael had been attacked, so there were no forensic clues. In fact they didn't treat the area as a crime scene at all. In a letter to the family a week before the inquest, Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Townsend told the family, "Despite a very thorough investigation we are still uncertain about how Michael came to be found on fire." At the start of the inquest the police insisted, "The position today is there is not one bit of evidence to point to it being a crime. We are in a position 18 months on of not knowing what happened."

All through the inquest the police pushed like mad to try and convince the jury Michael had set fire to himself, even though every bit of evidence that came up pointed in the other direction. The police even attacked their own witnesses, who showed that it was not possible for Michael to have set fire to himself. One forensic scientist who specialised in fire investigations, James Munday, told the inquest, "At the very early stage in my investigation I informed the police that as far as I was concerned they should treat this as a suspicious circumstance."

After the inquest verdict the Met were forced to reopen the case. It was in the middle of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and a week before Metropolitan Police commissioner Paul Condon was due to give evidence. But massive questions remain. No officer has yet been formally disciplined for mucking up the Menson murder case. All but one of the senior investigators had either retired or were in the process of retiring by the time the inquest started. And how did John Grieve zero in so quickly on Michael's murderers? It seems likely that their names had already come up early on after Michael was set on fire, yet the investigating officers did not follow them up.

But the most frightening issue is how the police treated the initial attack on Michael. As his sister Essie Menson said after the Old Bailey trial, "We felt that by not investigating [the murder] the police were almost sending a message to these people that it's fine, you go and burn a black man in the street and nothing is going to be done about it. It felt like they [the police] were saying you don't matter-Michael doesn't matter."

Given the fact that the police have rejected and resisted the findings of the Lawrence inquiry, everyone should be asking how many more Lawrences, Reels or Mensons are still to come?

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Thu 6 Jan 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1678
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