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Justice - Miscarriages of justice

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Miscarriages of justice  

(1) Miscarriages where the trial took place before 1986 (before the implementation of PACE)

Britain's Longest-running Miscarriage of Justice ended on 16 January 2002. Stephen Downing had his conviction for the murder of Wendy Sewell quashed 28 years after her death.

In 1989 the “Guildford 4” were acquitted of an IRA pub bombing in Guildford that killed 5 and injured 65

In 1991, the “Birmingham 6” were released after 16 years for a pub bombing in 1974, which killed 21 and injured 162.  The Court of Appeal said that no system is better than its human input. Like any other system of justice, the adversarial system may be abused.

In 1991, the “Maguire Seven” were acquitted of operating a bomb factory, positive forensic tests subsequently proved to be not positive. They were in custody from 1976 - 1991.

In 1992, Judith Ward was acquitted of killing 9 soldiers, 1 soldier’s wife and 2 children in a coach bomb attack on the M62.  A coach transporting military personnel was blown up on the motorway. Ward spent 15 years of a 30 year sentence in prison.

In 1992, Steven Kiszko was cleared of rape and murder of 11yearold Ronald CastreeLesley Molseed.  He spent 16 years in prison and died the year following his release. The police semen sample left at the scene of the crime could not have come from Kiszko, as he was impotent.


In 2007 Ronald Castree was convicted of Lesley's murder and received a 30-year sentence.

In 1997, “The Bridgewater 4” Vincent Hickey, Michael Hickey (J), James Robinson and Patrick Malloy (died in custody in 1981) the three that were still alive were released after 18 years in jail.  Newspaper-boy Carl Bridgewater, aged 13 was shot dead as he stumbled across an apparent burglary.

In 1997, Patrick Nicholls was acquitted, it was discovered that the ‘victim’ Gladys Heath had died of a heart attack. At the time of his release Nicholls was the victim of the second longest miscarriage of justice, having been convicted in 1975.

In 1998, Derek Bentley, was given a posthumous pardon.  In 1952, Bentley aged 19 was under arrest when his younger accomplice, Chris Craig, shot and killed a police officer.  Police said Bentley had shouted: "Let him have it, Chris!" which they alleged meant open fire, rather than to hand over the weapon.  Bentley was hanged. Craig escaped the gallows because he was a minor.   The trial took place within 88 days from the shooting, it lasted two-and-a-half days, and the jury heard no evidence of Bentley having a mental age of 11. He had, the Court of Appeal said, been denied "the fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen".

In 1998, Mahmood Hussein Mattan, who had been executed for the murder of a pawnbroker in 1952 on unreliable evidence, was acquitted. This was one of the first cases referred to the Court of Appeal by Criminal Cases Review Commission.


(2) Miscarriages where the trial took place after 1986 (after the implementation of PACE)

In 1991, the Broadwater Farm suspects Winston Silcott, Mark Braithwaite, and Egin Raghip were cleared of the killing of PC Keith Blakelock.

In 1993, Michelle and Lisa Taylor were found not guilty of the murder of Allison Shaughnessy.  Michelle had affair with victim’s husband and the case had received sensational newspaper reporting, which the Court of Appeal thought would have influenced the jury.

In 1995, Ryan James was acquitted of killing his wife with a horse anaesthetic only after his conviction was a suicide note found in vet journal.

In 2003, Williams-Rigby and Michael Lawson were acquitted of child abuse when they were care home workers.  It was found that they had been convicted on the unreliable evidence of ‘victims’ looking to receive compensation.  Both men are former colleagues of David Jones, now the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, whose trial on similar charges collapsed after evidence that complainants had fabricated the allegations to secure compensation.


How do miscarriages of justice occur?

  • Deliberate fabrication of evidence

  • Human error, mistake, both police and lay witnesses may prove to be unreliable when attempting to identify an offender.

  • Scientific evidence unreliable.  This can occur because of incompetent scientists or genuine error.  Expert evidence may not have been properly researched or there may have been a deliberate attempt to undermine the system by giving false evidence.  In R v Dallager (2002), ear print identification was wrong.

  • Jury problems.   The evidential value of expert testimony can be overestimated.  If there is a conflict of evidence, there is no way of ensuring the jury will always get it right.  No human system can expect to be perfect.

  • Unreliable confessions, as a result of police pressure or mental instability

  • Non-disclosure of relevant evidence to the defence

  • The conduct of the trial, particularly the judges summing up, this was dramatically demonstrated in R v Bentley.

  • Jury and magistrates can be prejudice.  The accused may be viewed in a prejudicial manner because be is of a different race, or other reasons,

  • There are problems with the appeal process; there are limited grounds for appeal

  • Institutions are inadequate. State agencies fail to protect or vindicate rights, or laws, which are inherently contradictory to the concept of individual rights


What can be done about miscarriages of justice?

It is generally accepted that the price of a fair criminal justice system will be the acquittal on a technicality of those who have committed criminal offences or because of a failure of evidence, whereas conviction of the innocent is never acceptable and, should it arise, speedy measures should be taken to rectify the injustice.


In Jan 2003, solicitor Sally Clark whose two babies died was finally acquitted of their murder, medical evidence had not been disclosed and inappropriate conclusions had been drawn on the statistical probability of death being an accident, this is known as the  'Prosecutor's Fallacy'. 


The release of Trupti Patel followed; she was a pharmacist who was cleared of the three murders of her sons Amar and Jamie, and daughter Mia between 1997 and 2001 - none of them survived beyond three months.


In a leading case R v Cannings [2003] CA Angela Cannings had her conviction of the murder of two of her children, seven-week-old Jason in 1991 and 18-week-old Matthew in 1999 overturned because it was unsafe.   Ms Cannings, 40, a former shop assistant, has lost three children through Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), or cot death. SIDS was the cause of death after Ms Cannings' first child, Gemma, who died at the age of 13 weeks in 1989.  Ms Cannings has one surviving daughter, who was born in 1996.  The Court of Appeal gave its reasons in the Cannings case they said that where expert evidence (that the death could only have been caused by the mother) was challenged the burden of proof fell firmly on the crown to prove that the mother had killed the child and not for the mother to disprove it.  This prompted the Attorney General to consult with the Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate 258 other cases.


Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984

Many of the reasons for the miscarriages of justice pre-date the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) (which came into effect in 1986).  It is widely recognised that PACE provides safeguards during police questioning, supported by strict Codes of Practice, made under sec 60 and sec 66. The Notice of Rights & Entitlements under the Codes of Practice is published in 38 languages.


Terrorist offences

Terrorist offences comprise some of the most high profile cases, but the Acts of Parliament aimed at preventing terrorism exclude many of the safeguards for the suspect provided by the PACE.  The Guildford Four trial was conducted scrupulously fairly and no amount of legislation could prevent fabricated evidence affecting the trial.


The Criminal Cases Review Commission

In "The Conscience of the Jury" (1991), Lord Devlin wrote that together the miscarriages in the cases of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six were "the greatest disasters that have shaken British justice in my time".


In 1993 the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (The Runciman Commission) reported, and recommended that the Court of Appeal must be more ready to examine possible miscarriages of justice.  It also recommended the establishment of an independent body, to review and investigate suspected miscarriages of justice, and to refer any cases where there is a real possibility that the conviction, finding, verdict or sentence will not be upheld to an appropriate appeal court. The Criminal Cases Review Commission was established under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, and took over responsibility for reviewing applications in 1997.  It is an independent body with extensive powers to investigate complaints of miscarriages of justice.


Previously, the responsibility for considering miscarriages of justice lay with the Home Secretary.  It became widely perceived that, to carry public confidence, this function should be performed by a fully independent body, rather than by the Government. 


A change in legal culture        

There was also a more general change in legal culture. A good illustration of that is the decision in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p Simms [2000] where, in the face of some 60 miscarriages of justice in the 1990s, the House of Lords set aside Home Office instructions denying prisoners’ access to journalists in their efforts to get their convictions overturned.   The philosophy became firmly established that there is a positive duty on judges, when things have gone seriously wrong in the criminal justice system, to do everything possible to put it right, R v Connor and Mirza  (Conjoined Appeals) [2004] HL


Recent miscariages

Rachel Nickell was brutally killed on Wimbledon Common in 1992.  Colin Stagg, who was falsely accused and convicted of her murder. Robert Napper, currently in Broadmoor, has now been charged with the killing and is awaiting trial. (December 2007)

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