Simon Morris blackmail trial to be reviewed for ‘irregularities’

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Senior judges have ordered an urgent investigation after lawyers for jailed Yorkshire property tycoon Simon Morris claimed there had been serious irregularities during his blackmail trial.

Morris, a former director of Leeds United who once had an estimated fortune of £69m, was denied bail yesterday as he began an appeal against his conviction for conspiracy to blackmail.

But three judges at the Court of Appeal in London decided that his case should be investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which considers potential miscarriages of justice.

Lord Justice Moore-Bick, sitting with Mr Justice Butterfield and Mr Justice Irwin, also ruled that new evidence could be heard when the case next comes to court.

Morris, 34, formerly of Ling Lane, Scarcroft, Leeds, and his former bodyguard Johnathon Ashworth, 51, of Hardly Close, Dukinfield, Greater Manchester, were jailed for 18 months on Monday after being found guilty by a jury at Newcastle Crown Court.

The trial heard Morris, facing a £3.5m bankruptcy petition following the collapse of his property empire, sent Ashworth to intimidate his former business partner, Hedley Manton, into repaying a disputed £100,000 loan.

Mr Manton was said to be left “shaking and pale” after being visited three times by Ashworth, who weighed 21 stone, had a scarred face and biceps “the size of an average man’s thighs”.

As well as being convicted of conspiracy to blackmail, Ashworth pleaded guilty to possessing two offensive weapons – a CS spray canister and a knuckleduster – which were found in his car on the day he was arrested at Mr Manton’s office.

Police said the blackmail plot smacked “more of the criminal underworld than the world of legitimate business”.

Morris’s businesses reported a turnover of £80m in 2006, but they fell into administration after the property market slumped. He was declared bankrupt in October 2009.

Yesterday, Morris’s barrister, Guy Kearl QC, who now speaks on behalf of both men, said serious irregularities in the trial were alleged.

He added the “fresh evidence” of a new witness who had only given a statement last week would, if accepted by the Appeal Court, “fundamentally undermine” the verdict.

The judges refused to grant the two men bail while the investigation is conducted, even though, as Mr Kearl said, they could spend months in prison waiting for the outcome of their appeals.

No date was set for the case to return to court, but the CCRC investigation into the pair’s complaint is expected to be completed within three weeks.