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 Justice on trial (Guardian Series)

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Location : Glasgow
Registration date : 2008-09-03

PostSubject: Justice on trial (Guardian Series)   Wed May 06, 2009 12:24 pm

The Guardian reports today that an urgent review hasbeen ordered into criminal convictions where DNA evidence is involvedto discover whether there are long-serving prisoners who are victims ofmiscarriages of justice.

Richard Foster, chair of theCriminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), told the paper he believesthere are as many wrongly convicted people in prison now as there werein the 1970s and 80s.

As part of a new series, Justice onTrial, the Guardian carries a report on an analysis of the mostrenowned miscarriage of justice cases the country has seen in the past30 years. It includes video interviews with some of the victims of theBritish legal system.

The leader page examines the role ofthe CCRC in the light of continued difficulties in identifying thosewho have been wrongfully convicted and the length of time they canlanguish in prison.

"Although the CCRC is much better thanthe nothing that preceded it, it is still inadequate. The process totrigger a review can be an insurmountable hurdle, for whatever the lawsays about the right of appeal, other factors intervene. A prisoner'silliteracy, a lack of access to lawyers, or simply ignorance of therules can all stop people getting fair treatment ...

"Evenwhen they are corrected, miscarriages of justice remain terriblepersonal tragedies ... compensation is no substitute for the supportthat the wrongly convicted need. But above all, uncorrectedmiscarriages of justice corrode respect for legal institutions. As asociety we are finally learning that it is less damaging to admitmistakes than to pretend that they never happened. Nothing enhancesjustice more than the rigorous pursuit of error."

It's like being buried alive'

Since the 1980s and 90s a flow of miscarriage of justice cases has underminedpublic confidence in the criminal justice system. John Kamara, PaddyHill and Sean Hodgson describe their experiences of wrongful conviction

WARNING: This video contains strong language from the outset

DNA search for miscarriages of justice

Thehead of the organisation that investigates alleged miscarriages ofjustice has ordered an urgent review of cases where DNA evidence isinvolved to find whether there are long-term prisoners whose innocencecould now be scientifically proved.

The decision comes asone of the country's leading civil rights lawyers claims that there arenow as many miscarriage of justice victims behind bars as there were inthe 70s and 80s.

Richard Foster, the chair of the CriminalCases Review Commission (CCRC), told the Guardian that developments inthe gathering of scientific evidence have implications for cases datingback many years. He has asked the Crown Prosecution Service to reviewall such cases.

"Progress in science means you are able togo back and revisit cases – Sean Hodgson [released earlier this yearhaving served 27 years for murder after his innocence was provedthrough DNA testing] is a very good example of that," said Foster, "Butscientific understanding and certainty can actually shift – in cotdeaths, for example – and you can also get the issue of the correctunderstanding of scientific evidence. You need to be sure it's beenexplained properly to the jury."

Considering whether thereare other Sean Hodgsons in the prison system, he said: "We have starteda review of our cases to check that out and I have written to KeirStarmer [the director of public prosecutions] asking him to check."

Fosterwas speaking on the eve of the launch of a new series on the Guardian'swebsite, Justice on Trial, which will look at alleged miscarriages ofjustice.

He also said he wanted to reach the manyprisoners who may be illiterate, inarticulate or with learningdifficulties and who may be unaware of how to claim their innocence."What we know about most people in prison is that they have quitelimited education. Many of them can't read or write," he said.Currently, the CCRC requires prisoners to write to them, something manyof them may be unable to do. "We also know that the prisons are underconsiderable pressure," Foster added, "so I want to investigate whetherthere are ways to make it easier for people who want to approach us todo so."

Foster believes there may be ­others who, likeSean Hodgson, confessed to crimes they did not commit. "We areunderstanding better that you do get people who, for psychologicalreasons, confess to things they didn't do. That has just reinforced usin the view that, if you've got a case that turns largely on confessionevidence, you've got to look very carefully at it."

Thenumber of applications to the CCRC, which has the power to refer casesback to the court of appeal, remains fairly constant at about 1,000 ayear. Of these, only 2.7% were successful last year, the lowestproportion ever. Foster said that was "a blip" and the figure this yearis 4.1%.

Campbell Malone, the lawyer whose work largelyled to the release of Stefan Kiszko, said he believed there were alarge number of innocent people in prison. "I believe we have agovernment that is positively hostile to the notion of miscarriages ofjustice," he said. "It would seem to be of the view that it would bebetter for the odd person to spend their life in prison for a crimethey did not commit than to have the inconvenience of it beingexposed." He added that there were "just as many" such cases now as inthe 70s and 80s.

The cases that first prompted seriousconcern involved the Birmingham six and the Guildford four, both duringa period when the IRA was active in Britain. Foster said there weresimilar concerns today. "Where there is intense pressure – public,political pressure – in a particular case and around terror, there isalways the risk that safeguards that should be in place won't beapplied as they should be," he said.

"You have always gotto pause if someone continues to say they're innocent, either whenthey're in prison or, more pointedly, if they're in prison and rulingthemselves out of early release because they're not acknowledging theirguilt. I think any sensible person is going to pause on that and say –well, why?"

Foster said he did have "3am moments" as towhether one of the 95% of applications that are screened out and notreinvestigated by the CCRC might be a miscarriage of justice. "I worryabout that – and anybody who works in criminal justice who doesn'tought to think about whether they made the right choice of career."

Miscarriages of justice: Project innocence

Therecould be as many wrongly convicted people in prison today as a quarterof a century ago, the Guardian reports today. Richard Foster, the headof the Criminal Cases Review Commission, might not agree, but heacknowledges that after Sean Hodgson's 1982 conviction for murder wasquashed in March, on the basis of DNA evidence not available at histrial, many other cases might need to be re-examined. As he alsoacknowledges, the CCRC is facing a financial squeeze that will make iteven more challenging to investigate properly claims of wrongfulconviction that come in at the rate of 1,000 or more a year. It is agrim picture that underlines the need for the Guardian's new Justice onTrial series of investigations into claims of miscarriages of justicethat is launched this week.

The CCRC, set up in 1997, wasa proud achievement of the new Labour government. It was a long-overduerecognition that, as human institutions, the police, the court systemand the Home Office are capable of getting it wrong, and not alwaysaccidentally - and that what matters is an effective mechanism forrestitution. Although the CCRC is much better than the nothing thatpreceded it, it is still inadequate. The process to trigger a reviewcan be an insurmountable hurdle, for whatever the law says about theright of appeal, other factors intervene. A prisoner's illiteracy, alack of access to lawyers or simply ignorance of the rules can all stoppeople getting fair treatment.

Foster aims to tackle someof this: he wants prisoners to have easy access to guidance on theCCRC. But when the prison population continues to rise and theproportion of prisoners with mental illness rises with it, the task ishard. Restrictions on legal aid mean the prosecution is often betterfunded than the defence (and now solicitors are being asked to competefor contracts to represent defendants in order to drive costs downfurther). The CCRC needs funding to ensure that it really can fulfilits original purpose.

Even when they are corrected,miscarriages of justice remain terrible personal tragedies. In today'spaper Gerry Conlon describes his two breakdowns, an attempted suicideand a struggle with addiction following his release after 15 years inprison, wrongfully convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich pubbombings. Others have equally miserable tales to tell. Compensation isno substitute for the support that the wrongfully convicted need. Butabove all, uncorrected miscarriages of justice corrode respect forlegal institutions. As a society we are finally learning that it isless damaging to admit mistakes than to pretend that they never happen.Nothing enhances justice more than the rigorous pursuit of error.

Justice on trial: an opening statement

Nearly50 years ago, Cyril Connolly wrote that "the test of a country'sjustice is not the blunders which are sometimes made but the zeal withwhich they are put right". He was writing long before the events thatwere to lead to some of our most notorious miscarriage of justice cases– the Birmingham six, the Guildford four, Stefan Kiszko – but what hesaid then holds just as true today.

We have just been verypowerfully reminded by the case of Sean Hodgson, finally released after 27 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, that such cases willbe always with us. The recent charging of 13 police officers and formerofficers as a result of the wrongful conviction of the Cardiff three isa further signal that the issue is a live one.

For thisreason, we are launching Justice on trial, the aim of which is tohighlight cases about which there may be major concerns. We aim toexamine cases that merit reinvestigation and to report on developmentsin those on their way through the criminal justice system.

Thereare already many excellent projects, campaign organisations and sitesin existence, and we refer to them in our directory section on the mainpage. If there are any that we have missed out – and there almostcertainly are – we would be grateful for any information on them.

Tomark the launch we have made a short film on the issue. In it, threeinnocent men, Sean Hodgson, John Kamara and Paddy Hill, tell our legalaffairs correspondent, Afua Hirsch, of the horrific damage that awrongful conviction can cause.

Two other films, both aboutindividual cases, will appear on Justice on trial shortly. We have anarchive of Guardian articles on individual cases. Suggestions for casesthat we should investigate, contributions to the debate on the issueand comments are very welcome and should be addressed

Full Coverage on Justice on Trial. Many articles on this link
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