The injustice of how our justice system deals with its own errors was a key theme at the launch of Proof magazine this week.
Victor Nealon left HMP Wakefield in December 2013 with little notice, £46 and a train ticket.
The former postman had been convicted 17 years earlier in 1997 for attempted rape. That conviction was quashed after DNA pointed to another man being the likely attacker.
As I have written elsewhere, Victor Nealon would have spent the first night on the streets sleeping rough, but journalists covered the cost of a B&B in exchange for an interview.
The way the wrongly convicted are treated post-release is shameful. But, that’s nothing new. Michael Hickey was convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Carl Bridgewater in 1978. Hickey was just 16 when he, together with three other men (the so called Bridgewater Four) were imprisoned for the shooting. After 18 years, Hickey was delivered from the cells to the Royal Courts of Justice barefoot in 1997.
Victor Nealon spent 17 years in prison. He could have been released after seven, but was rejected for parole because he refused to accept guilt or undergo rehabilitation to address his ‘crime’.
Successive home secretaries became even more vindictive in their treatment of wrongful convictions.
Together with Sam Hallam, Nealon has been challenging a decision by the Ministry of Justice to refuse him compensation in a critical test case. That decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in January as I reported for Byline Times.
Speaking at the Byline Times‘ News Club on Tuesday to mark the launch of the latest issue of Proof magazine, Nealon’s lawyer Mark Newby revealed that the case would go to Strasbourg.
“How we treat the wrongfully convicted says everything about the sort of society we want to be,” Newby told me. “It shouldn’t be forgotten that the hurdle to even quash a wrongful conviction is set impossibly high and for those who have climbed that mountain it is just wrong to ask them to then scale the same mountain again and prove to the Government beyond reasonable doubt that they are innocent.”
Patrick Maguire joined veteran crime correspondent Duncan Campbell at the launch to talk about the legacy of miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and Bridgewater Four. These cases so scandalised the British public in the 1980s and 1990s that they led to a royal commission to fix a justice system widely considered to be broken.
The so called Runciman Commission led to the creation of the first state-funded miscarriage of justice watchdog, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). If you’ve been wrongly convicted and exhausted your right to appeal, then the commission is your once chance to clear your name. The CCRC alone has the power to send your case back to the Court of Appeal.
Earlier this week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on miscarriages of justice announced a new investigation into the CCRC. It’s well-timed. As I reported for Byline Times (in relation to Eddie Gilfoyle) the CCRC has been overwhelmed from day one and had significant funding problems for at least a decade.
Two years ago, the number of cases the watchdog referred back to the Court of Appeal crashed from an average of only 33 cases a year to just a dozen in 2017 and only 19 cases last year. On top of that, the group’s success rate has has fallen dramatically and so less than half of those cases that are referred to the Court of Appeal are overturned.
The way the wrongly convicted are treated post-release is shameful.
Victor Nealon and Sam Hallam had their convictions overturned after successful referrals from the CCRC. It should be noted that Nealon made two unsuccessful applications to the Birmingham-based group before it eventually referred his case. He blames the CCRC for him spending an additional 10 years in prison because (in his words) it “accepted at face value” evidence given by the police that they had done the forensic testing.
One job the CCRC performs effectively is its role as decoy deflecting criticism from an unreformed Court of Appeal. On Tuesday night, Duncan Campbell recalled his frustration at the court’s treatment of the Wang Yam case. “This is the third appeal I have covered recently,” he wrote in his article for Proof. Two had been dismissed with “a barely suppressed yawn in a matter of minutes”, he wrote.
Despite the public outrage in the 1980s and 1990s about the shocking run of miscarriages, the royal commission left the Court of Appeal unscathed. “The court seems to be sliding back into the bad old habits of the 1970’s,” reckons Campbell.
It’s now 45 years since Patrick Maguire was sent to prison as the youngest of the Maguire Seven.
His brother, parents, uncles and a family friend were set down on the basis of false confessions beaten out of suspects (who became part of the Guildford Four) in relation to the 1974 IRA bombing of two pubs. It was alleged that the Maguires were running a bomb factory from their North London home.
Maguire was just 14 years old when he was sent to prison. He spent the first weeks of his sentence in an adult prison in solitary confinement because, as was explained to the then uncomprehending boy, of concerns about ‘suicidal tendencies’. Up until that point, it hadn’t occurred to him that it was even possible for a person to take their own life.
How we treat the wrongfully convicted says everything about the sort of society we want to be.Mark Newby
The damage done to Patrick Maguire has been devastating and it is lifelong as anyone who has seen the new BBC documentary A Great British Injustice: The Maguire Story will know. He is now a 57-year old artist trying to make sense of his prison experience through his compelling, but troubling work.
In the early 1990s, the forensic psychiatrist Dr Adrian Grounds was asked to assess five men from the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. “What emerged from the interviews was wholly unexpected,” Dr Grounds wrote in a 2005 paper. He hadn’t anticipated the “psychiatric morbidity” he found because none of the men had had any history of psychiatric illness. The extent of the men’s suffering was “profound”, he recorded.
Dr Grounds went on to interview 13 more men wrongly convicted. They were similarly damaged. All had been released from prison without notice or help from the kind of statutory services available to other prisoners. Little has changed. The psychiatrist observed that after being in maximum-security prison for years, the prisoners were “typically taken to the Court of Appeal, the decision was given, and then they were released with a small amount of money and a bag of possessions to their waiting families and the media”.
Patrick Maguire was involved in the campaign to overturn the conviction of Sam Hallam, who was just 17 when he was sent to prison. Nealon and Hallam were failed multiple times by our justice system, not least by a Court of Appeal which overturned their convictions in the most begrudging fashion. The injustice has been compounded by the Ministry of Justice’s refusal to compensate these two men whose lives have been devastated.
Dr Adrian Grounds said that compensation was “not a strong motivating factor” for the 18 men he interviewed. What they wanted was “apology, exoneration and exposure of those they held to blame for the miscarriage of justice’”.
The likes of the Birmingham Six and the Bridgewater Four did receive compensation. Payouts were reduced by the cost of “board and lodging” for time spent behind bars. “I should have gone on hunger strike for longer than 44 days: then the bill would have been less,” Michael Hickey’s brother Vincent quipped.
Victor Nealon would have spent the first night on the streets sleeping rough, but journalists covered the cost of a B&B in exchange for an interview.
Successive home secretaries became even more vindictive in their treatment of wrongful convictions. For example, New Labour scrapped an ex gratia scheme for compensation for the victims of miscarriage of justice which left a less generous statutory scheme. Now, thanks to the Coalition Government (specifically, Theresa May as Home Secretary) that scheme has been pretty much closed down.
If you have your conviction overturned then you have to be able prove your own innocence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to be eligible. It is a hurdle that reverses the presumption of innocence, and is almost impossible to surmount in the absence of DNA and, in the case of Victor Nealon, not even then.
Other speakers on Tuesday night spoke about ‘the lurch towards populism’ (to quote the former chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick) that a Boris Johnson-led Government might represent. We have been on that trajectory for years. Nowhere is that more evident that in how our justice system deals with its own errors.
Main photo by Andy Aitchison