Crime Research

Wrongful Imprisonment In The United Kingdom: When Innocence Is Not Enough

The UK has seen its fair share of wrongful convictions. As a result 23 British Universities have their own Innocence Projects, fighting to clear the name of individuals in prison for crimes they did not commit. The public perception of wrongful imprisonments is that they are rare; a handful of unfortunate cases where the criminal justice system has got it wrong.

High profile cases in the UK such as the Birmingham Six, where six innocent men were sentenced to life in prison in 1965 for a series of bombings which took place in the centre of Birmingham, further serve to suggest these are singular events that don’t happen very often. The reality however, is quite different.

It was in fact a case of wrongful imprisonment which played a significant role in the push for the abolishment of capital punishment in the UK in 1965. Timothy Evans, a 26 year old man in London was hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter in 1950.

Three years after his execution it was concluded Timothy Evans was innocent of the crime. The real perpetrator was his house mate at the time, John Christie, who had testified against Evans at his trial.

John Christie had been arrested for a number of recent murders in London and eventually confessed to the murder of Beryl Evans, Timothy Evan’s wife but not his daughter Geraldine Evans, although he was charged with both. Convicted of eight murders in total including the murder of his own wife, Christie was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on 15 July 1953.

How Wrongful Imprisonment Can Happen

A number of areas have been highlighted as open to risk for wrongful convictions, many of which focus on the procedures in place within criminal trials and the reliance on evidence provided.

Eyewitness Testimony

Eye witnesses can be a key part of any trial and this is evidence which is based on the memory of individuals who may have been in a high state of fear and anxiety at the time of the event in question.

Human memory and perception can be highly influenced by emotion and an accurate memory of what the eyes saw mixed in with internal perceptions and interpretations of what was being seen is a shaky area. Furthermore, an individual could very easily lie about what they saw for a variety of reasons, again bringing such evidence into question. Eyewitness testimony is a dangerous basis for a conviction.

After an increase in cases where eyewitness testimony was called into question and innocent people were being sent to jail, the 1976 Devlin Report was published in the UK with a recommendation that no individual should be convicted based on eyewitness testimony alone. A recommendation that while makes sense has not been made into law.

Furthermore, the Turnbull Guidelines in 1977 were introduced by a judge who recognised the danger of eyewitness evidence for miscarriages of justice. These meant that judges need to advise juries of caution regarding such testimony, however when juries listen to a witness stating they saw the person commit the crime and they are sitting in the courtroom, they are more than likely to believe them, particularly if they appear credible.

Expert and Forensic Evidence

Although provided by experts in the field in question, personal opinion and interpretation, incorrect scientific basis and exaggerated narrative are all possibilities in this kind of evidence. While developments within modern forensics science has gone a long way to help solve crimes and cold cases, within forensic evidence, a common perception is that it is exact and cannot be wrong. However, human error, incorrect science and contamination of evidence can always happen and evidence cannot be taken as absolute in every case.

Police Misconduct

We like to think that the police and law enforcement authorities always act under the laws however there are occasions where evidence is lost, moved or hidden or correct procedures are not entirely followed.

Pressure from authorities and the public to solve a case can result in such actions. Some may be genuine mistakes, however some cases may be conscious attempts to manipulate a case in favour of a desired outcome. There is of course also the strength of a defence council to consider. Everybody should be entitled to a fair, impartial and adequately represented trial but, the strength of a defence in a criminal court can only be as good as the defence council presenting it.

Inexperienced lawyers, lack of preparation, lack of time or dedication can all come into play meaning an individual may not get the quality of defence they should and key areas are not adequately addressed which could have gone a long way in proving their innocence.

Changes in UK Legislation to Address Wrongful Convictions

New laws and legislation have been brought in over the last 20 years to try and prevent miscarriages of justice in the UK. Wrongful conviction cases highlighted in the media have prompted the public to question just how safe and reliable our criminal justice system is and the powers that be have also raised concerns.

1983 saw the introduction of The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) which restricted the amount of time police could question a suspect. All police interviews now have to be tape recorded so there could be no dispute over what was said by who at a later date. A move to try and prevent long interrogations and suspicion down the line with regards to the treatment of a suspect.

A further purpose of this act was to ensure the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police handed everything over to the defence before a trial began, trying to ensure full evidence is provided for a fair, open and transparent trial for any suspect. An independent body is now in place tasked with investigating miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with Scotland operating its own version.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) are a small group of around 14 individuals including former police officials and lawyers who review cases where doubts have been raised. However, their caseload is sizeable drawing some criticism of how effective they can be.

It does appear that the creation of such a body has provided an avenue for those who feel they are part of a miscarriage of justice in the UK. This provides somewhere to turn where the case in question can be reviewed impartially, thoroughly and independently ensuring the correct process is followed and the correct outcome is reached.

What has become clear with each new wrongful conviction case is that evidence from eyewitnesses and certified expert witnesses is all open to error, misinterpretation and manipulation. Forensic evidence is not immune from this process and while these processes are still relied upon within criminal court cases, mistakes will continue to be made.

Wrongful Imprisonment Cases – When Expert Evidence Is Inaccurate

A number of cases in the UK have involved mothers being convicted of the murder of one or more of their children based on expert evidence stating natural causes could not be the cause of such deaths.

The case of Donna Anthony in 1998 saw her convicted of the murder of her 11 month old son in Somerset, England due to expect testimony by Sir Roy Meadow. Sir Roy Meadow was a British paediatrician known for his work on Münchhausen by Proxy syndrome, where individuals, usually mothers, bring intentional harm to their children to gain attention. This testimony was discredited and she was released from prison in 2005 after serving seven years. This is a a long time served not only for a crime she did not commit but with everyone believing she had murdered her own child.

Sally Clark was another mother who in 1996 was convicted of the murder of her two sons based on the evidence of pathologist Alan Williams and paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow. After being imprisoned for murder, her husband fought to keep custody of their remaining child. A long battle fought courageously by her family and supporters saw both experts being found guilty of misconduct in 2005 and removed from the medical register to prevent them being able to testify in any further trials.

Sally Clark was released from prison in 2003 after serving seven long years in prison. However this was an ordeal too great for her to overcome and she died from alcohol poisoning in 2006.

Inquisitorial vs Adversarial Systems

While the advantages and disadvantages of the inquisitorial and adversarial legal systems are debated, many feel the system currently used within the UK Criminal Justice System is partly to blame for the number of miscarriages of justice seen in the UK.

  • Adversarial System – the system used in the UK whereby evidence can be presented which is contradictory from expert witnesses and the jury is left to decide which is correct. Essentially a jury is expected to base their verdict on evidence in subject matters they have no prior experience. This leaves the system open to other factors such as credibility of the witness, personal impressions and jury bias – all of which can come into play and influence a verdict.
  • Inquisitorial System – the system used in most courts in Europe where evidence is agreed upon and the facts of a case are clearly established before a trial proceeds. If agreement cannot be made between the prosecution and the defence counsels, then the facts or evidence under dispute is not allowed to be presented to a jury in court. This removes the need for jury members to try and disentangle complex evidence by themselves.

Certainly the true scale of wrongful imprisonments within the UK has come under question, with many cases of overturned and quashed convictions never reaching the public eye and for one reason or another not being included in the official statistics. While high profile murder cases are often reported in the media, lesser crimes are generally not reported but this does not change the number of innocent people being convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.

If the wrong person is convicted that means the person who did actually commit the crime is still out walking the streets. The family of a murder victim wants justice for their loved one but they want real justice with the actual perpetrator of the crime being convicted. To convict an innocent person for the crime brings no peace to anyone involved. Wrongful imprisonment therefore does not just impact the lives of the person wrongly convicted, but their families and the families of the victim.

American cases of wrongful convictions, when the death penalty can be faced, are a testament to how serious and life-changing miscarriages of justice can be.  The case of Edward Lee Elmore in Carolina for example saw an innocent man convicted of murder and spend 31 years in prison, 29 of those years on death row with change in the law in his favour being the only reason he was not executed.

Related: Edward Lee Elmore – Free After 29 Years on Death Row

In England, the case of Stephen Downing who was convicted of murder in 1973 after he found the body of murder victim Wendy Sewell is another example of the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment. At 17 years old with a low IQ he confessed under police pressure thinking that is what they wanted to hear and they would then let him go when they found the real killer.

Stephen Downing spent 27 years in prison for this murder, only being released after investigation by a journalist put pressure on the right people to reopen the case. He was released on bail in 2001 and his conviction was overturned completely in 2012. The murder of Wendy Sewell remains unsolved.

Wrongful imprisonment affects wider society and the more this happens the more we begin to question the efficiency and reliability of our criminal justice system. A loss of faith in the system created to convict the guilty and free the innocent is a worrying concept. When innocence is no longer enough to ensure justice will prevail there is much work to be done in order to correct this balance.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Aug 20) Wrongful Imprisonment In The United Kingdom: When Innocence Is Not Enough. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/08/wrongful-imprisonment/ ‎

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