Times caption: Derek Cooper was released last month
A piece by David Collins, Northern Correspondent, in today’s Times:
They called him a “demon headmaster” and accused him of running a “twisted” regime at the boarding school he owned more than 30 years ago. The testimony of former pupils put Derrick Cooper in jail — until the appeal court intervened.
After more than nine months in prison, missing his wife and struggling with ill health, Cooper, 78, was released last month. Judges ruled that his conviction “cannot be regarded as safe”.
The elderly former teacher’s ordeal has focused renewed attention on the risks of uncorroborated evidence in cases alleging historical abuse.
“My life has been turned upside down,” Cooper told The Sunday Times. “The Court of Appeal has confirmed that I was wrongly convicted. This was a miscarriage of justice.”
In April last year Cooper was found guilty of assaulting two boys at Underley Hall school in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, in the 1970s and 1980s. The two men accused their old teacher of beating them, and the jury believed them.
Cooper maintained from the start that the allegations were “fantasy”. Yet he was convicted on a majority verdict of assaulting one pupil, who claimed Cooper had “head-butted me”, “gave me a few kicks around the body”, and “tried to put his fingers in my eyes”.
The jury also found him guilty of cruelty towards a second former pupil, who claimed he had suffered an assault that drew blood in a dining hall.
Three other teachers and a maintenance manager at the school also faced charges but were cleared of assault.
“I was absolutely stunned when the jury found me guilty,” said Cooper. “I could not even remember one of the people making allegations.”
Prosecutors produced no corroborative evidence from any independent witness. There was no medical record or complaint from the time and no other former pupil or teacher could be found with any recollection of the alleged dining hall assault. [J4MB emphasis]
“Many of the people I would have liked to call as witnesses were dead and records had been destroyed,” said Cooper. “After a lifetime of dedicated service to needy children, I had become a criminal. I discovered it is almost impossible to prove your innocence about events so long ago.”
Legal documents seen by this newspaper show that the case was inspired by a group of troubled former pupils, a number of whom had filed civil claims for compensation and stood to gain financially if Cooper was convicted. [J4MB emphasis]
Some of the accusers had criminal convictions. Yet the jury sided with the accusers on two key charges and Cooper was sentenced to 20 months.
Speaking publicly for the first time since he returned home, Cooper described the police investigation as “a witch-hunt”, adding: “I wasn’t surprised that allegations had been made against me and former work colleagues. This is happening all over the country. The police are swamped with historic investigations.
“We were suspects. We lived under a cloud of suspicion for years, even though we had done nothing wrong.”
The effect on his life was devastating. “I am a 78-year-old man. I have never endured anything like this before. The [cell] door clangs shut and you’re on your own. I couldn’t understand why I was there.”
The prison was miles from his family and his wife had her 100-year-old mother to care for. “I can’t tell you how alone I felt,” he said.
At one point he collapsed in his cell “and was taken to the hospital in handcuffs with a long chain connecting me to the prison officer”.
Robert Currie, a former Metropolitan police commander, is a friend of Cooper’s who sat in court during the eight-week trial.
“The five men accused had unimpeachable backgrounds,” Currie said. “Innocent teachers have endured a deplorable interruption to their retirement. In cases like these, I am surprised that people can be convicted and sent to prison only on the evidence of their accusers when there is no independent, corroborative evidence.”
Currie believes the Jimmy Savile scandal changed the way police deal with allegations of historic abuse. The notorious television and radio presenter avoided prosecution partly because police did not believe the victims of his sex assaults. Now the scales have tipped the other way, with police obliged to treat all allegations seriously, however scant the corroborating evidence.
In Cooper’s case, Currie said, “there should be an independent review into how this happened”.
Cooper said he still had fond memories of running his Cumbrian school. “We were near the Lake District so we taught canoeing and waterskiing with a summer camp on the shores of Windermere,” he said.
But now he said he had reached the stage of life “where my main concerns are meeting the next doctor or going to the next hospital appointment”.
He added: “The stress was awful and still is. I had an unshakeable belief in the British justice system, but I was in prison for almost 10 months. The memories of that have changed my life for ever.”
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