Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Difficult First Steps Towards Proving Your Innocence ...

On the 29th Anniversary of Jeremy's conviction he talks about the difficulties in proving your innocence. 

Innocence Projects, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), lawyers and MP’s as well as the media face that first hurdle of whether the case before them is a genuine Miscarriage of Justice or not. A cursory review is all that can be done in the first instance, which probably won’t reveal anything to help supporters get to the truth. My experience over twenty nine years of listening to fellow prisoners protest their innocence has left me with no special insight into how to sift out those who are trying it on, and those who are not. If I like the person then it plays a huge part on whether I believe them or not. My point being that if I cannot tell face to face, and with my years of experience, then the CCRC and Innocence Projects et all, have even more difficulty as they have to rely on a letter or two, and a quick review of the evidence upon which to make a decision. This has meant the cases chosen to be supported by these organizations are often ones where there isn’t much evidence to sustain the conviction. The CCRC does sometimes investigate complex cases but it is only a matter of time before they drown under the paperwork and bail out. At least, that’s how my experience has been. Other organizations don’t have the resources to take on those kinds of cases either.

The ‘cure,’ which was promised in the guise of the CCRC in 1997, has allowed the real problems to remain unaddressed.  Broadly speaking, the current court process, juries, poorly financed Legal Aid, an over stretched Crown Prosecution Service, combined with a results driven police force all play a part in Miscarriages of Justice happening in the first place.

A fixed, amended and overhauled system would prevent innocent people from being wrongly convicted, and both barristers and solicitors know what needs to be done but it’s as if tradition and protocol prevent those who know from speaking out, and the voice of high profile figures in this field would help. There is also a distinct reluctance for many organizations, and legal workers to embrace social resources and other forms of media, which could raise awareness of the cause. Miscarriages of Justice have a late 20th Century feel, with most of the population picturing the release of innocent people photographed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but the problem is as real and persistent today as it ever was. Wrongful convictions continue to affect many young people from diverse cultural and social groupings, but they remain something that is considered a rarity, or a thing of the past.

I have my own ideas on how to improve the trial process, which is always weighted in favour of the prosecution from the outset; it is unlikely anything much will change for the foreseeable future. This means Innocence Projects, the CCRC and other Campaign Groups will be needed for many years to come. The trick will be to ensure that their finite resources are put to best use. Because of the lack of specialist legal help available to prisoners maintaining innocence, in the first instance, prisoners need to self prepare work. Many prisoners will have limited help from others on the outside who might lack any legal expertise, time, money, or access to evidence and resources themselves. Some people who are innocent inside have no one on the outside.

There are valuable voluntary organizations like Miscarriages Of Justice Organization (MOJO) who offer an unbiased platform to tell people about your innocence, but without having done the groundwork before contacting these people all you have is a pen and a piece of paper to say, “I’m innocent but I don’t have any evidence to prove I am.” Not many people will believe the word of someone convicted of a serious crime without any evidence to support their claim. It’s this first rung of the ladder which most wrongly convicted prisoners find difficult to get a foothold upon.

Jails have almost no facilities for use by prisoners and unless you have an appeal pending you cannot have access to a computer resource. It’s catch twenty-two because without facilities to get to appeal you can’t have access to many facilities to get you there. Law books in prison libraries are not allowed to be taken back to prisoners cells and can only be used during library times, which might be limited to two fifteen minute sessions each week or an hour pre booked once every three weeks. They are able to order books from non-specialist, local libraries which takes weeks and is simply not going to have the resources required. Similarly, prisoners cannot have books sent in to them. Prisoners can buy books from a specific resource, but law books often run into hundreds of pounds, which even law students on the outside have difficulty in financing.

If anyone reading this has ever done casework they will know all about the painstaking, meticulous number of hours that go into researching. No one will work harder than the innocent prisoner in this process. The range of books in the library is very limited; you won’t find the latest books by Michael Naughton, or guidance on preparing your casework. Computers should be available for legal work with printing facilities, as well as software packages, which allow prisoners to prepare case material. Access to a broad section of Internet resources, or databases listing forensic scientists, human rights lawyers and their case histories, should be made a priority.

Also, understanding how other prisoners campaign should be pooled into one resource, and updated at least every six months. On line resources in an intranet style should be allowed online so that various law schools, and law libraries can be accessed, enabling those who can help and those who need help to be joined together. All this needs policy change at head office, as it is not the fault of individual prisons, just the rules laid down by a higher force. As it stands today all prisoners are allowed is very limited quantities of our case papers, A4 paper and a biro. Facing the world with nothing but a pen and paper in the twenty-first century after all the lessons we should have learned is crushing for an innocent person.

There is no one readily accessible with experience to help or guide you on how to make a submission or plea for help other than written guidance from the CCRC if requested. You cannot make contact with anyone over the telephone without prior permission and this process can take a month and even then your clearance is to a specific person on one number. You can only telephone someone if they first agree to accept calls from you, therefore you cannot call around to find a lawyer speculatively.

In effect, there is no equality of arms. A prisoner who has been wrongly convicted and who cannot read or write has no possible way in which to seek help for a new appeal. In the high security prison system about 50% of prisoners have real difficulty reading or writing. So how does this group of prisoners obtain even a cursory review of their case? A structure needs to be put in place to help them. The adversarial system is still extraordinarily difficult for even the most resourceful, educated, experienced prisoners to obtain help to fight their case for innocence.

It is never going to be possible to unearth a Miscarriage of Justice without a case undergoing a really thorough investigation. If police corruption is the cause of a wrongful conviction (and it is frequently the cause), then it will be well covered up, and very hard to detect without meticulous and painstaking attention to case papers and evidence. Police officers know the system better than anyone, and are best placed to disguise any wrongdoing, and in the event of transparent mistakes, the errors are ignored and covered up by superiors to maintain public faith in the justice system as a whole. A scant review, which most cases initially receive, has no chance of uncovering these causes of Miscarriages of Justice.

Disclosure of all case material must happen pre-trial, and be given to the defendant personally, not simply made available for a solicitor to look through on a couple of afternoons at some random police station. If Public Interest Immunity has been used then the defendant should know it has been used and why. Obviously in some cases this couldn’t happen, but for most cases and for most of the time there is no excuse for this blanket secrecy and this should be changed.

There needs to be real help with sensible funding for the prison system to support those inmates maintaining innocence. Allow law schools entry to prisons and allow those maintaining innocence to use computers, and access to those who can help via telephone, skype and on line. Allow Innocence Projects and other advocates to come into prisons and give talks, interview prisoners and give advice directly.

Set up extensive law libraries on line or via a database to give access to up to date books, keeping the cost low, and a reduction in the physical space for books. Prisoners who are innocent could find out the latest legal rulings, and learn how to fight for themselves and these Miscarriage of Justice cases have a greater opportunity to present their position to the CCRC, Innocence Projects or even their own lawyers.

Changing Home Office policy to alter how prisons deal with prisoners maintaining innocence is going to be challenging but not beyond the abilities of highly skilled and experienced Prison Governors, who could advise and guide head office on finding the best way forward.  Until changes happen, many innocent people remain in the dark about how to help themselves in a system which does not afford lawyers to carry out thousands of hours work, and requires the prisoners to do most of it themselves.


Jeremy Bamber

Jeremy Bamber
Innocent Jeremy Bamber