A PROPERTY tycoon who conspired to blackmail a former business partner has had an appeal against his sentence thrown out after judges challenged the reliability of a new witness.
Former Leeds United director Simon Morris and his former bodyguard Johnathon Ashworth were jailed for 18 months in October after being found guilty by a jury of conspiring to blackmail Hedley Manton.
The Court of Appeal yesterday turned down an appeal by Morris, 34, and Ashworth, 51, despite hearing from Hasan Zareen, who claimed he was paid £500 by Mr Manton to impersonate Morris and further incriminate him.
Lord Justice Laws, flanked by Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, said there were no grounds to quash the convictions.
“This is a case where there are murky waters beneath the surface, but one thing is clear, that nothing we have heard today begins to disturb the safety of these convictions,” said the judge.
Lord Laws added they had serious concerns about Mr Zareen’s evidence, and the fact he admitted lying repeatedly to police.
“We have to say that he was an argumentative, devious and garrulous witness,” said the judge.
He added: “It seems to me he was a most unsatisfactory witness. He is not, in our judgement, capable of belief.”
The trial at Newcastle Crown Court in September heard Morris, once worth an estimated £69m, enlisted Ashworth, of Hardly Close, Greater Manchester, to intimidate Mr Manton into repaying a disputed £100,000 loan.
Before the trial, someone using the social networking website Facebook sent abusive messages to Mr Manton, claiming to be Morris. This would have breached Morris’s bail conditions.
During the six-day trial in September, however, evidence of the Facebook contact was never put before the jury and the abuser’s identity could not be ascertained.
Morris, formerly of Ling Lane, Scarcroft, Leeds, denied having contacted Mr Manton, and his defence team claimed it was an attempt to incriminate him. Yesterday the Court of Appeal heard from Mr Zareen, who owned up to being the Facebook abuser after Morris and Ashworth were convicted.
Mr Zareen, of Talbot View, Leeds, told the court he was paid £500 in cash by Mr Manton to send Facebook messages from a false account in Morris’s name.
He said he was approached in the street outside his house in summer 2010 by Mr Manton – who was a stranger to him – and was asked to send abusive messages to him, his fiancée and other people who knew Morris.
Mr Zareen said he was told sending the messages would get Mr Manton out of having to pay a £100,000 debt to Morris, and he accepted the commission.
Police traced the messages to his computer, but Mr Zareen initially denied knowing Morris and Mr Manton or having sent the messages. He was in contact with West Yorkshire Police about 14 times.
Mr Zareen claimed he only owned up after feeling guilty when he read reports about the impact on Morris’s family. He tracked down Morris’s father and gave statements to Morris’s solicitor.
“I’m a young person and did not want to live with it for the rest of my life,” Mr Zareen told the court. “The reason I lied is I did not want any involvement.”
Guy Kearl QC, acting for Morris and Ashworth, said Morris had nothing to gain from employing Mr Zaheen. “Manton had everything to gain if Morris was arrested for breach of his bail and incarcerated,” he added.
Mr Kearl argued the convictions were unsafe as the new witness would have influenced a jury.
But Lord Laws said he and his fellow judges were unconvinced by Mr Zareen’s repeated lies. He said if Mr Manton wanted to send false messages to himself to incriminate Morris, “he had only to visit an internet cafe”.
Morris and Ashworth did not attend the appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, but Morris’s family were in the public gallery where a woman screamed from the gallery when Lord Laws dismissed the appeal, shouting “This is crooked.”