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 Life After Life: A personal story

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Registration date : 2008-09-03

Life After Life: A personal story Empty
PostSubject: Life After Life: A personal story   Life After Life: A personal story EmptyWed Sep 03, 2008 7:54 pm

Life after life

John Kamara spent almost 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. When he was finally freed on appeal last year, there was no apology, no offer of counselling and nowhere for him to go. Louise Shorter followed his progress during his first traumatic year of freedom ....

For three days I sat in the public gallery of court number six, heart in mouth and eyes fixed on the top of the head in the dock. It was all I could see of the man everyone was talking about. He was an angry man, they said. Volatile. Prisoner H10109 had been locked up for the past 20 years for a brutal murder he said he hadn't committed. This was his last chance to prove his innocence. If this appeal failed he knew he would die in prison. It was a real-life drama unfolding before my eyes and I had persuaded my boss and John Kamara to let me film him from the moment he got out. If he got out.

The appeal had been running for three days when suddenly the judges took their leave. Nobody knew what was going on. It was a strange place to stop. A detail of one of the witness statements, which had been buried for 20 years, was being examined. The judges had drawn their heads together in a huddle and then, suddenly, they got up and left. Everyone in the court room - lawyers, journalists and supporters sat in tense silence. Five minutes later, the judges returned and abruptly told the defence barrister, Michael Birnbaum QC, that Kamara's conviction had been quashed. Nobody moved a muscle. There wasn't a murmur. All my preconceived notions of families jumping in the air, shouting in jubilation, were out of place that day. The judges didn't have a single word of apology for Kamara. Their thanks went to the lawyers. They didn't even look at the man who had been robbed of 20 years of freedom.

An hour later, I stood at the back door of the appeal court and waited for Kamara to come out into the sunshine. Finally, I met the man who, until an hour before, was classed as one of the country's most dangerous men. He was quietly spoken and bemused. He said he didn't understand what the judges were saying when they quashed his conviction. He thought he was being taken back to the cells, then he heard one of the security guards saying he would be going home.

The trouble was, he had no home. We got into a taxi and started filming as we pulled out of the court precinct. A small crowd of supporters shouted and cheered as we drove out on to the Strand and Kamara flinched and blinked in the glare of the lights. I didn't want to rush in with 101 idiotic questions so we sat in the taxi - Kamara, his brother, a friend, me, and a colleague, Sara Hardy, who was operating a video camera - in silence. The atmosphere was charged as, for what seemed like an hour, we drove through London and looked at the view.

When I viewed the raw footage later I was amazed to discover it only lasted eight minutes. Then I began talking to Kamara. He was friendly and kind but punch-drunk. When he found the words to express himself they came in a jolt. He said it felt as if the taxi was driving too fast. Later, he would tell me that everything seemed to be going too fast, even people walking looked as if they were scurrying about on fast-forward. His eyes couldn't take in the colour because in prison everything is grey, so on that first journey, the tones, to him, were like an overexposed photograph. Finally, we arrived at Paddy Hill's house. The two men had met in Parkhurst prison in the early 80s - eight years before Hill's release as one of the Birmingham Six. Kamara was going there because he had nowhere else to go. At the court he had been given £46 and a travel pass that ran out that evening at 8pm. He left with sacks and sacks of court papers and one set of clothes. As an innocent man, nobody in authority had responsibility for Kamara. He didn't fall into the remit of the probation service because they only deal with guilty people. He had spent 16 of the past 20 years in solitary confinement fighting his case. No human contact for 23 hours a day. Day after day. Year after year. He had been told when to eat, sleep and exercise for two decades and now he was being put back on the streets with no help at all.

When we got to Hill's house we continued filming. Suddenly the tables had turned for Kamara. After all those years of being told what to do, I started asking him for opinions and permission to film. He didn't know what I wanted him to do, but I didn't want him to do anything for the camera. I wanted him to be natural but he didn't know what natural was.

We stopped filming when it got dark. News crews were turning up, thrusting huge cameras about the place. Kamara was giving interviews and saying he was waiting for a prison guard to tell him to get behind his cell door. Sara Hardy packed up the camera and we left. I shook Kamara's hand on the way out.

The next time I spoke to Kamara he was going to Liverpool, so we met there. He had stunned me by saying he was going to meet the father of the victim of the crime for which he had been imprisoned. BBC Radio Merseyside had tracked Kamara down and invited both men on to its live phone-in show the next day. For years, John Suffield, the victim's father, had believed Kamara was guilty. Now he wanted to meet him. I arranged to be there, too, and film the meeting. Afterwards, Kamara and I would return to London on a train. I had heard stories of other people released from long prison sentences who had freaked out on a fast-moving vehicle or gone berserk if an unwitting bystander had shut the door on them while in a small room.

The radio interview went well. The two Johns showed nothing but mutual respect and it was plain that Kamara was comforted by Suffield declaring publicly in a loud, clear voice that he was an innocent man. Suffield had sat through the appeal. He knew that Kamara was not one of two men who had bound his son, a betting shop manager, to a swivel chair and tortured him for the combination to the safe. It was a combination the manager could not give because, in his terror, his stammer worsened and he could not get the words out. It was another emotional, highly charged day for Kamara, made worse by the huge cameras of the local news crews who followed him everywhere. He was happy with ours because it was so small and, probably, because we were two women who didn't crowd him. But the bulk of the crews and their equipment nearly panicked him.

Over the following months Kamara and I spoke daily and met regularly. Sometimes Sara or another colleague came too and filmed. Other times, we just sat and chatted. Kamara had a rollercoaster of a life those first few months - tracing and meeting lost siblings, trying to get benefits to live on, trying to come to terms with the fact that, after a 20-year battle to clear his name, people now expected him just to forget about it. He had virtually no friends and nothing to do except go over the case papers which had been the focus of his life for so long. He was not offered counselling; he needed people to talk to.

I had to resolve issues too. How do you draw the line when you are so personally involved? There were times when I thought Kamara would end up homeless because he didn't exist in the eyes of the social services and wasn't eligible for housing. Should I offer my spare room? I couldn't film with him all day and then leave him out in the cold, but I couldn't save him either. How could I make a film about the injustice done to people freed after wrongful conviction, but step in and provide the food and shelter he was denied?

Three months after Kamara's release he reached his lowest point. He had arranged to go to the House of Commons to meet his MP, Louise Ellman, with whom he had corresponded regularly from prison. We arranged to meet at Westminster underground station where we had permission to film Kamara's arrival. It had always been virtually impossible to ask Kamara to do anything for the camera. He felt self-conscious walking in or out of a building for us, so we couldn't get set-up shots. He would get angry and anxious and was in danger of de-camping entirely; we always had to grab whatever we could on the hoof. On this particular June morning, Kamara was in such a state of despair he could barely talk to me. We were held up at the tube station by a delegation of Japanese businessmen on a guided tour. Every time I tried to go up to Kamara to explain, he would cross the street and walk away. He looked gaunt and was a shadow of the punch-drunk but dignified man released from prison a few months previously.

At times, Kamara would telephone to say he didn't want any more to do with the film. He would shout and rant and say he was pulling out of the project and wanted all the tapes. He was still being messed around by social services and had no home of his own. He couldn't sleep and spent most nights sitting up at Alexandra Palace, staring at the distant lights of London, wishing he was back in prison. He needed some outlet for the anger that had reached boiling point and I was one of a small number of people with whom he had regular contact.

A year on, I class Kamara as a friend. He is now spending his time trying to help other prisoners who claim to be innocent. He has a strong network of supportive friends and family. He has his own home; he has even found love and plans to marry.

I have acted as a kind of counsellor to him at times, but have also had to keep a distance and observe. It has been a difficult line to tread, but it has allowed me to witness the extraordinary strength of his character: Kamara survived in spite of the system, not because of it.

• Life After Life, a Rough Justice special, was broadcast on BBC1 on 17 April 2001

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