WHEN 19-year-old Rachel Manning was found strangled and mutilated in a Milton Keynes wood, in December 2000, her long-term boyfriend, Barri White, was devastated.
But his grief turned to disbelief when he was arrested for her murder – along with a pal who had helped him search for her on the night she died.
Barri – who had been to a party with Rachel but had left her looking for a taxi – was convicted in 2002.
But while Barri languished in jail, Rachel’s real killer, Shahidul Ahmed, walked free for ten years – and was finally caught after attacking another a young girl.
Rachel’s murder is reexamined in the first episode of Murdertown, which returns to Crime+Investigation tonight.
Fronted by Anita Rani, the documentary reveals the shaky evidence that saw Barri and pal Keith Hyatt wrongly jailed and speaks to the journalists from TV show Rough Justice, whose own investigation led to the conviction being overturned.
But 14 years after his release Barri, now 41, says he still struggles to come to terms with his time behind bars.
“I’ve not been able to hold down a relationship, I’ve not been able to hold down jobs, I’ve suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression,” he says. “It has ruined my life.”
Tracy Alexander, Director of Forensics for City of London police, was involved in the re-investigation that helped free Barri, and says police narrowed their focus too soon.
“All the miscarriage of justice cases I’ve worked on have one thing in common, which is that the police are drawn towards a particular individual, by instinct, or perhaps circumstantial evidence,” she tells The Sun.
“Because the senior police officer decided on a person quite early on in the investigation other people, or other leads, aren’t followed as aggressively as they might be.
“Also, they don’t have a great defence lawyer when it actually gets to court. Those are the common factors.”
Disappeared after scuffle at party
The evening of December 9, 2000 began as a happy occasion, with the young couple celebrating Barri’s mum’s 40th birthday with a Seventies themed party in a bar above Milton Keynes bus station.
But after Barri got into a scuffle with a couple of lads outside, and Rachel pulled them apart, the couple called it a night and went their separate ways.
“I had to go home because I had work in the morning,” says Barri. “So I was going to go to my friend’s house to get a lift and told her to go back and get a taxi.”
Barri went to pal Keith Hyatt’s house nearby but, when he got there, he got a call from Rachel, from a phone box, who told him she was lost.
He arranged to meet her at a nearby video store but when he got there, five minutes later, Rachel was nowhere to be seen.
Keith drove Barri around in his van for over an hour before calling it a night at 5am.
Knowing she had some friends in the area, Barri assumed she had gone back to stay with them and the following day he became increasingly worried as he repeatedly rang her flat, but got no answer.
But when she didn’t turn up for work, on Monday morning, he finally called the police and reported her missing.
Strangled and mutilated with steering lock
Rachel’s body was discovered in undergrowth by the groundskeeper of a local golf course, just outside Milton Keynes, on December 12, three days after she went missing.
She’d been strangled and her face was severely disfigured after being battered with a steering lock, which was found near the body.
“Rachel’s aunt phoned my mum and said that a body had been found and they think it’s Rachel,” says Barri. “That’s when I found out. I was devastated.”
But just two hours after the heartbreaking news, police arrested Barri.
“I think the police were just looking at me,” he says. “It feels like they didn’t do an investigation. Instead of building the evidence and putting me in the middle, they put me in the middle and then built the evidence around me. That’s how it felt.
“I was speechless. When they first charged me, I was stood at the custody desk, and I was thinking this is a joke.
“I’m waiting for the hidden cameras to come jump out on me. It just didn’t feel real.
“I’d done nothing wrong, so I still thought justice will be done. There’s no way I could get found guilty for a crime I never committed.”
As CCTV footage showed the two men driving around in the van, in the early hours of the morning, Keith Hyatt was also arrested and his van seized.
At the 2002 trial, it was stated that there were several calls between the phone box and Keith’s house, rather than just the one Barri had told them about.
Prosecutors claimed that Barri was the one who had called his pal, to confess to murdering Rachel and beg for help to dump the body.
The court heard that there was no traceable DNA on the steering lock, and forensic expert Professor Pie claimed particles found on the seat of the van matched those found on Rachel’s skirt – suggesting she had sat in the passenger seat that night.
Tracy Alexander says the case was flawed from the start.
“If there had been the sophisticated DNA analysis technology available at the time the offence happened, then the results from the steering lock would have taken them in a different direction,” she says.
“But the technique then was Low Copy Number – a way of amplifying a tiny sample of DNA in the lab – which was later found to have fundamental flaws.
“The prosecution expert for the fibre and articulate trace evidence was wrong. We’re talking about tiny contact traces, fibres which are very easily moved around.
“Professor Pie looked at the fibres in the van and said, ‘that’s exactly like those on Rachel’s clothing, so she must have sat in this seat.’
“But car seats get grubby and unless you make a thorough study of what particulates are found in any car or van driving up the street, you can’t say those particulates are unique to one van.
“Also, if Rachel was already dead, they would have put her in the back of the van, not propped her up in the passenger seat.”
The lack of blood and mud, which would have covered a man who had bludgeoned a victim and then taken her to a muddy undergrowth, was also overlooked.
“It’s fair to say that a good forensic scientist knows that absence of evidence is evidence, but that message is not always adhered to,” adds Tracy.
Trauma in jail
Despite the lack of solid evidence, Barri was found guilty of murder and given a life sentence while Keith was jailed for life.
“I never in a million years thought I’d get done for it, because we never committed the crime,” says Barri.
“Going to jail was difficult to deal with. They say everyone’s innocent in jail, and when you’re trying to prove that you are actually innocent, no one listens to you,” he says.
“It kept coming up on the news, ‘Barri White charged with killing teenage girlfriend’, and then when people hear that in jail, they wanna fight you.
“There were times when I sat in my cell and thought, ‘Did I do this? Did I actually do this and it’s that bad that I’ve blocked it out of my memory?’
“But then you think, ‘No, I never done—I know I never done it, I know for a fact I never done it.’
“Or you’d hear footsteps walking down the landing and you think, they’re coming to my cell and saying, ‘We made a mistake, Barri, you’re free to go.’ Then they walk straight past your cell. That was quite hard to deal with.”
It was only when the case came to the attention of the investigative team on Rough Justice that the evidence began to be pulled apart.
A new forensic examination, commissioned by the team, found the “unusual” particles found in the van were produced by the flint of a standard disposable cigarette lighter, so were actually extremely common.
CCTV footage of the van suggested that the two men would have had just 13 minutes to drive Rachel to the woods, go back home, clean off blood and mud and then continue to drive the vehicle around the area – an impossible feat.
Finally, when Tracy’s team were able to use better technology to examine the DNA of a hair found on the steering lock, they found it didn’t belong to either Barri or Keith.
Barri was cleared of murder in a retrial in 2008 and two years later, a new breakthrough came when taxi driver Shahidul Ahmed, 41, sexually assaulted a young girl in his car.
The victim managed to escape and a concerned lorry driver noted the number plate of the attacker, leading to his arrest.
The DNA database showed a match for Rachel Manning’s killer – and Ahmed was jailed for 17 years.
Worryingly Tracy – who works with the charity Inside Justice to investigate potential miscarriages of justice – says Barri’s is not an isolated case.
But she says a change in the law is now making it harder to get them overturned.
“Inside Justice has quite a number on their books and of those, there’s probably four or five, where you could see the same kind of pattern,” she says.
“Where somebody at some point decided ‘this is my guy’ and then all roads of investigation lead to that person.
“But during a recent murder case, we asked Suffolk Police for the exhibits so we could reexamine them and they flatly refused and the Supreme Court ruled that the rules of disclosure don’t apply post conviction.
“Since then, we haven’t been able to get any exhibits for any case unless we have ‘new and compelling evidence’ but you can’t get that without examining the exhibits.”
For Barri, the trauma of prison has left deep mental scars.
“It’s been 21 years since Rachel and the hardest part of this is trying to get my life back on track again,” he says.
“I didn’t speak to a counsellor for years and it was only a year and a half ago that I actually started speaking to somebody about it and that helps a lot. It helps a lot.
“I’m glad Rachel finally got justice and for her mum and dad and her brother, that the real person actually got caught.
“It gets easier with time, but I would’ve proposed to her, I would’ve had kids with her, I would’ve married. But he took it all away from me.
“She will never be forgotten, ever.”
Murdertown returns on Monday September 27 at 9pm on C&I.