Can ‘Cell Confessions’ Ever Be Beyond Reasonable Doubt?

By David Breakspear

On Remembrance Day (November 11) 1991 authorities in America announced that Gambino organised crime family underboss, Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano had turned government witness and informed on John Gotti and other high-ranking members of the Italian-American Mafia.

Gravano’s reward?

On September 26, 1994, Gravano was sentenced to 5 years in prison for confessing to his explicit involvement in 19 murders.

Although not based on a ‘cell confession’, it is a prime example of the incentives that could be on offer to turn on one of your own, regardless of what they say is true or not. Some lie just for the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol proffered. Can a cell confession ever truly, and genuinely, be corroborated?

Another thing to bear in mind, in 1954 the rule of there being no body so therefore no murder, changed in the UK when Michail Onufrejczyk was convicted for the murder of Stanislaw Sykut even though no body was, or has been, found. Many cases exist where someone has been convicted based on an alleged confession made in prison to another prisoner, or a member of staff. One case that stuck with me was the 1996 murder conviction of Russell Causley. Russell was convicted for the murder of his wife Carole Packham although no body has ever been recovered, with not one prisoner or former prisoner coming forward, 3 came forward, one of whom was a professional conman, another being offered an incentive. In fact, all three had many previous convictions for dishonesty. Russell’s daughter, Samantha, was also a prosecution witness and herself a former prisoner, who had served a prison sentence for dishonesty and drug offences. Russell and his mistress Patricia Causley, whose name Russell took, also had convictions for fraud and dishonesty.

It was while being investigated for a life insurance scam – which also adds more spice to this story, especially when you throw in a bent solicitor as well – that the police began to investigate the disappearance of Russell’s wife Carole. At the time, presumed to be working abroad. Russell and Patricia Causley then travelled to Canada where after a few months Patricia was arrested by the authorities for fraudulently using Carole’s name and work permit to obtain work. Before meeting Patricia, and Carole, Russell had previously served a prison sentence for GBH. In all this mess, and with more to tell, once the police began to investigate Carole’s disappearance, a former prisoner and cellmate of Russell’s, known as Lamonde, in April 1995, after apparently seeing information about Carole’s disappearance walked into a police station and gave a statement alleging Russell had made it obvious, he had killed his wife. Lamonde, alleges that Russell, who was serving 2 years for the life insurance scam, had told him “Thank God it was for fraud and not something else”. Lamonde goes onto allege that although Russell never explained what ‘something else’ meant, believed Russell had killed his wife, and with an accomplice took Carole’s body to a cemetery and buried her. The police believed what Lamonde had told them. They were of the strong opinion Carole had been murdered by Russell and Lamonde conveniently gave them the evidence they needed to arrest then charge Russell with murder.

This is perhaps a good place to add that when I chose this case to highlight ‘cell confessions’ a friend told me about a documentary on Netflix called ‘The Investigator’ with Mark Williams-Thomas. In an ironic twist, in the programme, Mark received a letter from Patricia’s solicitor, after Mark had written to her asking for her side of the story, they responded saying that Patricia did not want to be involved in a trial by the TV. Exactly what the programme, in my opinion, turned out to be against Russell. I felt it created more questions than it answered, especially in an already complex and twisted plot that Lee Child himself would be proud of writing. After not speaking to anyone in relation to Carole’s disappearance, and after Patricia in 2014 ‘Dear John’ to Russell, he wrote a full confession to Carole’s murder and how he disposed of her body. According to the appeal court records, which I researched and studied from Russell’s appeal in October 1998, along with other official records, the second ‘cell confession’ came from a man known to the court as ‘Murphy’. In relation to the information contained within the records I found it strange that Mark felt it necessary to unmask a man previously convicted of his part in the insurance scam and sentenced to 3 years, I accept he hadn’t accepted his guilt, but, it seemed as irrelevant as Mark’s trip to Canada to uncover information I was already aware of from the available research. However, this article isn’t are view of the programme, it is to highlight how unsafe ‘cell confessions’ are and why they should never be allowed in a court of law or edited for a programmes narrative.

Murphy, who according to the documentary, and rolled out as prisoner number 2, was having an affair with Patricia while she and Russell were still together, a question of a conflict of interest just with that information? Whoever was speaking as Murphy/Prisoner number 2 in the programme mainly talked with opinion and not fact. Not for the first time? This time for entertainment purposes maybe? Not sure if he was paid for his appearance or what his motives were for being a witness in the first place, but he was a character, not one I would trust though. He was in HMP Ford at the same time as Russell was finishing his 2years off for the life insurance scam.

Murphy claimed Russell wanted to know what effect acid had on plastic and human bones. When Murphy responded, he didn’t think the acid would have any effect on bones Russell had replied: “What I used was fucking strong enough to get rid of Carole. “Murphy went on to claim that Russell told him how he had done it and that the police will never find the body. It is suggested Murphy recalled information from the life insurance scam that could only have come from Russell. It proves they spoke but nothing else. Murphy said Russell had told him about a particular day: “The day he got rid of his fucking bitch of a wife forever. It was the best day of his life. No one would find her, and nobody could do anything to him. What he had done himself was better than Agatha Christie. “Murphy’s cross-examination covered 75 pages of transcript. The cross-examination was on the basis that he had minimal contact with Russell and what the story the prosecution relied on had never taken place. Russell’s legal team produced two former prisoners as witnesses themselves, a Mr Boot and a Mr Sheffield (don’t remember them being mentioned in the programme). Mr Boot, another former solicitor, said under oath that he saw Russell “…and Murphy walking around the perimeter of the prison, “but, he also said Murphy was a known liar and he himself and never heard Russell talk about Carole. Mr Sheffield, also in Ford at the same time as Russell, Murphy and Mr Boot, said: “that he had spent many days in the appellant’s company talking to him and playing games, but he never recalled seeing the appellant walking the perimeter with Murphy.”

The third prosecution witness known to the court as Briggs proved to be so unreliable as a witness, only when he gave his evidence in court, that by the end of the trial the prosecutor asserted little value to Briggs’ testimony by disavowing it. In refusing Russell’s appeal, the appeal judge’s: the vice president of the criminal division – Lord Justice Rose – Mr justice Scott baker and Mr justice Hughes said: “As to the terms of his directions, in our judgment the summing-up, when read as a whole, was appropriate to the circumstances of this case. It stressed, in the passage which we have already read, that the accounts of the three witnesses could not live in the same world and at least two, to a very large extent, must be untrue: indeed, there was obvious divergence, so that all could not be true, in relation to the disposal of the body. The learned judge warned the jury to exercise caution in relation to these witnesses. It must have been apparent to the jury, from the evidence of these witnesses and the cross-examination of them, that they were witnesses whose evidence they should approach with caution. ”

Therein lies the problem, a serious issue and one that I have found to be consistent among court cases involving a ‘cell confession’, in summing up, a judge always points out to the jury that the evidence gained from so-called ‘cell confessions’ should be approached with caution. Maybe this should be the principal at the beginning of an investigation and not after a jury has heard something that is very difficult to un-hear when amongst other ‘evidence’.

However, in an investigation that was started by police in Guernsey which is where the life insurance scam took place just outside the harbour with a ‘man overboard’ mayday call and the fake death of Russell, he was arrested due to an alleged ‘cell confession’, subsequently admitted nothing in interview but, with no physical evidence, no crime scene and no body Russell was charged with Carole’s murder. What chance did Russell have in what I can only call an extremely biased programme ‘The Investigator’? All three witnesses were ripped apart under cross-examination, and yet Murphy/prisoner number 2 was able to share his tale unchallenged.

To close this article and in one final twist of irony, because just like the three ‘cell confession’ witnesses Russell was a convicted fraudster – crimes he only seemed to have begun after meeting Patricia – the police refused to believe his confession and did not search for her remains, it was left to Mark Williams-Thomas to do this. The police were right not to believe Russell.

David Breakspear is a reformed former long-term prisoner ‘A Father’s Son’ is his first book available on Amazon Books in paperback at £9.83
Twitter: @Areformedman