Comment by The Guardian’s Eric Allison: miscarriages of justicePosted: November 26, 2015
Newspaper’s prison correspondent says more innocent people are being jailed
Every time I went to prison I was guilty – though I did not always plead so. It wasn’t my job to prosecute myself. I took the view that prison was an occupational hazard and once convicted, I tried to use the time to educate myself and, hopefully, make it harder for the prosecution next time around.
But what of those languishing behind bars who are not guilty? I am convinced there are more miscarriages of justice now than at any time since I have been a student of the system.
Cynics used to say, “Oh, everyone is prison is innocent.” Not so. There was a time when it was rare to find somebody inside protesting innocence, but no longer. My files are full of cases which scream out miscarriage. I have neither the time nor resources to investigate them all and, with the demise of programmes such as the BBC’s Rough Justice and Channel 4’s Trial and Error, there is nowhere for people wrongly convicted to go.
Out of commission
In theory, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) provides a safety net for those wrongly convicted. But the CCRC has disappointed many of those who hoped that it’s establishment, in 1997, would provide a swift and sure route to freedom for victims of a miscarriage.
In practice, the CCRC is under-resourced and seemingly unable to carry out the in-depth investigations required to uncover the truth when the justice system has got it wrong. They are seen as gatekeepers to the court of appeal, trying to second guess how that body will view the cases they refer.
I believe there is a blueprint that causes miscarriages, a pattern that emerges in virtually all the cases.
— The Advocate.SPW. (@dioltas8) November 1, 2015
The path to injustice
First you have a defendant who has little or no knowledge of the criminal justice system, unable to fight his or her corner, totally reliant on their legal representation. Yet, in most of the cases I have studied, I have found glaring flaws in the way the defence handled things. And with cutbacks in legal aid, I can only see more mistakes down the line.
Then you have the police acting as judge and jury, making up their minds about guilt early on and hampering the defence, mainly by failing to disclose to the defence – as is their duty – evidence which may assist them.
In high profile cases, pre-trial prejudicial reports by the media are now commonplace. Judges tell jurors to ignore such reports, but how likely is it they will comply?
In 2003, changes to the criminal law allowed the prosecution to produce evidence of a defendant’s previous convictions. Before that, unless a defendant attacked the character of a prosecution witness, juries were not told if an accused person had ‘form’. Give a dog a bad name…
— Jeremy Bamber (@Bambertweets) October 22, 2015
The case of Jeremy Bamber
The stand-out case in my files is Jeremy Bamber, who was convicted of shooting dead his adoptive parents, his adoptive sister and her two six year-old boys in 1986. The judge imposed a life sentence, with a minimum tariff of 25 years.
But in 1988, the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, ordered that Mr Bamber spend the rest of his life in jail. He has twice been back to the appeal court and failed to get his conviction quashed. His case is currently back with the CCRC.
I have researched his conviction in depth, including spending time near the crime scene in Essex and talking to some of the players in the tragedy. Not only am I certain Bamber did not kill his family, I am convinced it would have been impossible for him to have done so.
Space does not allow me to dwell on the detail behind my certainty of his innocence, his story is told on his website. But bear this in mind: Bamber is highly intelligent and articulate. He has a dedicated group of supporters, who campaign long and hard. Yet he remains in prison, three decades on.
What about those who are innocent, but not articulate, educated and blessed with friends and family to fight their corner? What chance do they have?
And it matters, not just because innocent men and women are behind bars. When the justice system fails and the wrong people are convicted, it means the guilty go free. As things stand now, we will never know who bombed Birmingham, or Guildford, or who took the life of 13 year-old Carl Bridgewater, slain with a shotgun, while delivering newspapers in a peaceful rural area.
Who knows what those responsible for those dreadful crimes did with the rest of their, free, lives? Perhaps they took more victims? That’s why it matters.