Michael Birnbaum

Michael Birnbaum KC after 20 years of work secures a new appeal for a man widely believed to be wrongly convicted of murder.

Oliver Campbell, a young mentally challenged black man of excellent character and very peaceful disposition, was convicted in 1991 of shooting dead a shopkeeper, Mr Hoondle, in the course of an attempted robbery. Michael was not involved either in his trial or in his appeal. But for over 20 years he has worked to get Oliver’s convictions quashed, in the strong conviction, shared by many others, including BBC journalists and Oliver’s former MP, that he was wrongly convicted.

The case against Oliver rested on three pillars: the gunman had worn his hat on the robbery, an identification and admissions to police. The main areas for concern are:

  • the identification evidence was very weak, there was no forensic evidence against Oliver and unidentified hairs in his hat could have been those of the gunman;
  • much of the police questioning was misleading and unfair and there were many breaches of PACE Codes of Practice;
  • all the admissions relied on by the prosecution were made in the absence of a solicitor and some even in the absence of an appropriate adult;
  • many of the admissions were provably false and some were simply absurd;
  • the trial was unfair because the jury never heard police evidence that his codefendant, Eric Samuels, had exonerated Oliver. Eric was undoubtedly present on the robbery. In a conversation with a police officer shortly after his arrest Eric said that he did it with a man called “Harvey” who had earlier stolen Oliver’s hat. It was Harvey who had shot Mr Hoondle;
  • post-trial Eric had again exonerated Oliver to two independent people, one of them being a BBC journalist Lynda Cowell, who videotaped her interview with him;
  • the summing up was inadequate and unfair.

In 2003 The BBC made a programme about the case “If the Cap Fits”. Their detailed research produced new evidence of Oliver’s innocence, including Eric’s interview with Lynda Cowell and psychiatric evidence casting doubt on the reliability of the admissions. Michael worked closely with the production team and appeared in the programme.

Michael applied to the Criminal Cases Review (CCRC) for referral of Oliver’s convictions back to the Court of Appeal. Despite the many weaknesses in the case against him the Commission declined to do so. An attempt to obtain Judicial Review of that decision was unsuccessful.

In 2020 the CCRC agreed to review the case again. It has obtained new expert psychiatric evidence that the confessions are unreliable and it now recognises the significance of Eric’s exoneration of Oliver. In 2021 BBC Newsnight broadcast another piece about the case again with Michael’s participation. Last week the CCRC announced its decision to send the case back to the Court of Appeal.

Michael takes up the story. “In my 50 odd years at the Bar I have never known a case that has worried me more than this one. I am delighted that at long last Oliver will have an opportunity to clear his name. I am profoundly grateful to all those who have helped me, including Glyn Maddocks QC (Hons) who has worked with me on the case for many years and Jessica Tate, one of the rising stars at Foundry Chambers”.

For the BBC’s broadcasts see

“If the Cap Fits”

2021 Newsnight item,vid:cDerC2yNVZk


The CCRC’s recent press release is at