“It sometimes feels like we have been conditioned to accept the criminal justice system, yet when we work on a case we realise that we should actually scrutinise it as much as possible”
This is what a law student from the Irish National University said at the recent Irish Innocence symposium. Hosted by the Irish Innocence Project at Griffith College Dublin, students from both projects and those from the INU spoke about the cases they have been working on, before breaking into groups to discuss the challenges of that work.
The passion for their work was clear but their honesty as to the challenges they had to overcome, and how the work had developed their perspective of the criminal justice system was refreshing. They all shared an expectation coming into case work that the process would be a lot easier; “we can free someone in a year” is a common prediction, alas and sadly that will not happen. Reading the trial judgments, writing to the client, receiving a response from the client, accessing their legal files- all of these things take time, often months. Access to evidence post -conviction is particularly difficult (a post for another day).
Another commonality was the realisation of the need to disconnect from any pre-conceived ideas about what innocence looks like. The question as to whether having previous convictions makes someone a less likely candidate for innocence is something that most students working in this area will have to think about at some point. The ‘innocent’ client may not have a conveniently available alibi, they may indeed have previous convictions and to top it off, it may not be immediately obvious as to how, as caseworkers they could help. Most students who come to work on the IPL initially start by thinking their client is guilty- why- because they accept what the Judge has said, they aren’t looking to question where the process could have gone wrong. That said, all the students agreed that carrying out innocence work change your perspective and understanding of the criminal justice system, whether the work affirms existing scepticism or not.
It is worth remembering that innocence work, although part of clinical legal education is entirely different from the traditional legal clinic approach. Students aren’t examining the facts and finding the law and advising the client, they are unpicking the case once it has concluded. They are combing through all the evidence and everything that has been said and done in order to identify the possibility of a new legal argument of new piece of evidence. It takes years. It takes motivation. It takes a belief in making the system better.
The students today liked the opportunity to talk to others who know this process and share their frustrations and also share their belief in improving the system. I’m looking forward to next year already….
IPL Director, Louise Hewitt
Student caseworkers pictured left to right Fatimazahra Dehbi, Serpil Tas, Bethany Howell and Javier Medina picture in Dublin in the grounds of Trinity College
The Innocence Project London (IPL) along with the student led Miscarriages of Justice Society hosted the 3rdannual Miscarriages of Justice Symposium this month. We were fortunate to be joined by some brilliant guest speakers, including Former Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders, Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave national lead for criminal justice and the students who have worked on the project spoke about the impact of their work. We were also joined by Dean Gillispie from the Ohio Innocence Project who spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Louise Hewitt, Director of the IPL reflects on why the idea of innocence is so difficult in this country.
Watching the students who have worked on the IPL this academic year talking about their efforts, their frustrations and, for some, how they have wrestled with understanding their client to be innocent struck me this year, more than any other. What we read, what we hear and what we see in the mass media has affected our perception of what an innocent person should look like. If they had no previous convictions, if they had a solid alibi who happened to working in a remote part of the world when the case came to court and didn’t realise what was happening, and if the real culprit could be found and identified then it would be much easier for people to identify someone who is innocent. The trouble is, that innocence does not look a certain way and it does not come with a specific set of circumstances. Innocence is a moral value, and that can affect our ability to see people as innocent.
Innocence is not a feature of the English criminal justice system where a conviction is found to be unsafe. This is not a finding of innocence, unless the judge tells you that verbally in court (some have) it is a finding that the conviction does not withstand the scrutiny of being safe. The problem with understanding how difficult it is to undo a wrongful conviction is evident in the frequently asked ‘how many people have you got out of prison?’. In response, a lengthy and rather depressing explanation leads to a very short and simple answer, ‘none’.
So, what’s the point of all this work and effort then?
In the words of exonerees from the Ohio Innocence Project, the point is that people will not be the criminals they have been labelled to be if they are innocent. One of these exonerees Dean Gillispie (pictured) was in prison for 20 years because of faulty identification in the absence of any DNA which tied him to the crime. Time and time again Dean claimed his innocence because he knew he did not do it. Imagine losing 20 years of your life for a crime you did not commit. Imagine losing the opportunity to have a family, losing the opportunity to develop a career, losing the opportunity to live your life for 20 years. You simply cannot imagine that. I know I can’t.
Back home in England, there are individuals who have been convicted for crimes they did not commit. They are stuck in a criminal justice system that was only ever envisaged to be a one-way street. It was never set up to cater for the possibility that an eye witness could make a mistake or fabricate their evidence for example. The trial process would also expose this surely. But, over time, legal aid has been eroded, lawyers have a large amount of cases to manage, and mistakes get made throughout the process that are not identified until it’s too late.
That is the point of our work, we believe in the innocence of our clients. The project works hard to do what we can to build cases to take to the Criminal Cases Review Commission but we cannot do it on our own. The criminal justice system needs to change, it needs to recognise that wrongful convictions can, and do happen.
This month’s blog post has been written by one of the groups of volunteer student case workers consisting of two final year and two second year law students. Their current case rests primarily on eye witness testimony and they are not happy.
The Criminal Justice System Surprises Yet Again: The Perils of Eyewitness Testimony
One of the things that all Student Caseworkers on the Innocence Project London can agree on is that the criminal justice system is simply not what it seems. But then again, I’m sure many law students can discuss that anything remotely related to law never appears to be what it seems.
The case we are working on concerns joint enterprise, a principle which is widely used and widely criticised.
One thought which may spring to mind when the term criminal justice system is mentioned may be the word ‘justice’, but in practice, and especially in our case justice appears to be simply a mythological concept. The notion that justice does not appear to have been done in our case is based on the fact that the criminal justice system was so easily manipulated by way of eyewitness testimony. There was no DNA evidence placing our client at the scene of the crime, only eyewitness testimony, in which there were a number of inconsistencies. Despite this, the jury were persuaded sufficiently to find our client guilty. Working on the Innocence Project London does make you ask the question how were the jury able to found a guilty verdict? It amazes and confounds us as to how such inconsistent eyewitness testimony can make a difference and have such a significant impact on the whole of the proceedings. How easily these statements alone, can result in an individual in being prosecuted for a crime despite the lack of any other evidence.
We can expect that in joint-enterprise cases there may be inconsistencies where multiple suspects are concerned, especially where evidence pertaining to each suspect is not revealed until later on; or where suspects are not all correctly identified within a proximate time period (for example, our client were not identified until some 18 months after the initial incident). Whilst we may accept that inconsistencies do occur however, we will not accept such inconsistencies as a normal part of the form and function of our criminal justice system. We will not accept that eyewitness testimony alone allows for safe convictions. In fact, if anything, convictions based on eyewitness testimony alone are anything but safe, they are unsafe, and they should have no place in our criminal justice system.
It is with delight that I highlight in this blog post the hard work of the Cardiff Innocence Project, which succeeded in helping to quash the conviction of Gareth Jones who served three and a half years in prison.
Their story can be read here https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/1401633-cardiff-innocence-project. This is the second conviction that the Cardiff Innocence Project has helped overturn and they remain the only UK university innocence project to have done so.
This judgment was handed down on 21 December 2018, but there has been hardly any national publicity about it in the weeks that have followed. The decision has significance. For Gareth, he will start the process of rebuilding his life, set against the backdrop of having been wrongfully convicted of a serious sexual assault. For projects like the IPL, it shows that the criminal justice process doesn’t get it right all the time, and people can and have been wrongfully convicted in the UK. There is a need for innocence project work, but it is not and should not be a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system.
Please share the success of the Cardiff Innocence Project, because if we don’t I fear very few will.
From September 2018 Priya Sridhar (pictured right in her IPL hoodie) from the University of North Carolina has been interning with the IPL. Upon the end of her time with us she reflects on the impact the project has had on her.
“I am not quite sure what I expected interning at the Innocence Project London to be like, but three and a half months later, my heart is heavy to say goodbye. Coming into the IPL, I think I might have pictured stacks of wrongful conviction cases waiting to be investigated, and myself a detective going around interviewing witnesses and poring over evidence. There were stacks in the IPL work-room. But I was no detective, let alone law student. I was just beginning my third year of undergraduate studies in Public Policy, studying abroad in London with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. So began an academic journey with the IPL, packed with skills trainings and assignments ultimately invaluable to my personal growth and professional development.
The IPL was unique in designing an experience for me, albeit short-term, consistent, thorough, and balanced between learning experience and hands-on application. I read a lot of material in training and practice during my internship, but the causes and personhoodof wrongful convictions never left a workday dull. The breadth of requests I responded to from prisoners, combined with consistent team effort on one case, transformed my own perception of the urgency, commonality, and gravity of wrongful convictions.
While I have gained innumerable academic and career skills from the IPL, what I am most eager to share are stories. Stories, including those heard from exonerees at the 3rdEuropean Innocence Network Conference in Barcelona, formed from my interactions with incredibly gifted and persevering law students at Greenwich University, or read about in countless US and UK reports on wrongful convictions.
Stories possess enduring impact. With the IPL, stories did not merely expand my capacity to relate, but created a conviction: to raise awareness of an injustice from which no locale (including my own) is immune. As I make my way back the States, I look forward to carrying the torch of IPL’s mission into my university, by helping to charter an undergraduate advocacy and awareness raising network.
Perhaps no phrase rings more true to my state of mind these past few months than “I had no idea.” I had no idea how difficult and longthis work could be, how much more than freedom is lost in prison, and how much more I had and have yet to learn about criminal justice. So, no, I am no more a detective than when I arrived. I am simply a more confident, critical, and now law-aspiring American student, fully convinced of the needs for criminal justice reform and determined to address them through my studies and beyond.”
So, last week I attended the third annual European Innocence Network Conference in beautiful Barcelona. Hosted by the Law School at the Universitat de Barcelona I was fortunate enough to be able to take 12 of the volunteer students caseworkers (thank you School of Law, University of Greenwich) from the Innocence Project London (IPL).
Two of these students were presenting at the conference, on the impact of their work (photo right).
It was important that the students were given the opportunity to come. It is one thing working on the IPL with me and their supervising lawyer, but it is from an entirely different perspective to realise how much their work means, and to recognise that they are part of a truly global movement.
One of the most significant moments was when exonerees from America and The Netherlands spoke about their individual and shared experiences of being wrongfully convicted. These stories were incredible moving. Losing so many years of your life to prison, for a crime you did not commit stays with you for the rest of your life. Whilst you are in prison, life is being lived and lost on the outside. Even when you are exonerated the adjustment and reintegration with family and friends is the start of an equally hard journey. For the students to hear these accounts first hand, it personalised their work. They could start to understand the significance of their act of volunteering and comprehend the enormity of what they are part of.
For the exonerees, to see the student’s commitment, honesty and passion it gave them hope. Yes, working on the IPL helps to develop numerous academic skills. Much more than that is how it enables students to develop empathy towards individuals that have been wrongfully convicted, alongside the opportunity to critically examine the criminal justice process.
Unpicking a case from the end provides a unique perspective as to how the process has worked, what could be improved and what could be changed.
Sitting listening to the exonerees speak, the students were visibly moved. Their work to tackle wrongful convictions may take place in the IPL project room at the University of Greenwich, but their contribution is to the global struggle to tackle wrongful convictions worldwide. By coming together to share experiences we can learn from each other and understand the reach of the network in Europe and beyond.
Every wrongful conviction damages the legal system in which is takes place. Every wrongful conviction damages society, especially the friends and family of the person convicted. It is unrealistic to change entire legal systems in one go, but collectively we can create awareness of their flaws and look at how to improve them.
My students have seen this. They understand this now. This message will spread over time.