Criminal cases review commission: the last bastion of hope
The view from Alpha Tower, the looming skyscraper that is home to the criminal cases review commission, stretches from the knotted mess of Spaghetti Junction to the open wilds of the Malvern Hills.
But behind the closed doors of the CCRC's glass-walled office, where the case of a young man who claims he was wrongly convicted of raping his sister is being considered, all eyes are focused on a single sheet of paper.
Requisitioned from a stash of prison officers' private notebooks going back many years, the document is yellowed with age, smudged and unclear.
"Does this say 'offence' or 'offences'?," asks Julie Goulding, one of the three panel members, a lawyer and former NHS trust chief executive.
"Did this man make a number of firm admissions of guilt in prison – or one weak admission when he was applying for parole?" "Whose signature is this anyway? It's so smudged," she sighs. "Even if we can work out whose notes these are, we can't ask them: it's ridiculous to even hope they'll remember such a small detail, scribbled in their private papers and concerning one of a zillion cases dealt with years ago. Added to which, the officer might well have retired by now - or moved away entirely." She squints at the file again. "I just wish I could work out if that's an 's' or not."
An independent body charged with investigating suspected miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the CCRC is the last bastion of hope for those whose cases have already been rejected by the court of appeal.
By conducting its own investigations, starting from scratch and reaching into corners the original inquiry might have missed or not been legally able to delve into, the commission decides whether the original judgment was safe. If it has doubts, the case is referred back to the court of appeal and a fresh trial begun.
The first organisation of its kind in the world was set up in 1997 after a series of catastrophic wrongful convictions corroded respect for the British criminal justice system – the Guildford Four, the , the Maguire Seven, and Judith Ward.
The human costs of uncorrected miscarriages of justice are disastrous. Paddy Hill recently described almost two decades after his release, his 16 years wrongful imprisonment for the 1974 Birmingham bombings have lead to breakdowns, alienation and uncontrollable rages.
Gerry Conlon, falsely convicted of the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings, has also talked of breakdowns, attempted suicide and struggles with addiction after 15 years in prison.
Creating the CCRC was a proud achievement of the-then Conservative government, which, with cross-party support, made the long-overdue acknowledgment that the police, the courts and the Home Office sometimes get it wrong. And not always accidentally.
But the commission is a secretive body. The Guardian is the first newspaper to have been granted access to its case committee meetings. And it was during rare interviews with its chairman, Richard Foster, that he warned the commission may find it impossible to correct miscarriages of justice if the planned closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) goes ahead.
The material collected and stored by the FSS is, said Foster, crucial to CCRC investigations, which can order the retesting of forensic material many years after the initial conviction: Foster illustrates his concerns by pointing to the sort of material the Commission may need when investigating a murder conviction.
"If there is no independent evidence to either confirm or undermine the applicant's claim of innocence but a science - for example, DNA profilling - has moved on, we might want to see if there are tissue samples or other samples which may be available for testing. Such a process can reveal a miscarriage of justice.
"If, on closing the FSS, the work is distributed in some way to a number of companies then without special arrangements being put in place the commission will not be able to access material which can go to the very heart of a review," said Foster, a former chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service.
"Not only will the work currently under way need to be redistributed but so will the vast quantity of scientific material and evidence held in its archives, storage facilities and on its databases … It is not clear who will fill the vacuum.
Many former prisoners owe their freedom to the CCRC, including Barry George, wrongly convicted of the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando; Sally Clark, who was wrongly convicted of murdering her infant sons – and who died within four years of her release from prison; and Sion Jenkins, convicted of battering to death his foster daughter, Billie-Jo Jenkins.
Warren Blackwell, freed after the CCRC referred his case back to the Court of Appeal in 2006, last month announced he was bringing a claim for damages against the police for his wrongful conviction as a sex offender.
Relatives for whom justice arrived too late have seen names cleared, albeit decades after their death, including that of Derek Bentley, hanged for the murder of a police officer in 1953. But the commission has also faced criticisms.
The final chapter in Hope For The Innocent?, a recently published book of essays by some of Britain's leading lawyers and academics, claims: "It is clear … that the CCRC is not the solution to the wrongful conviction of the innocent."
The editor, Michael Naughton, says that because it is shackled by the requirement to refer only those convictions it believes might be quashed by the court of appeal, the commission overlooks cases where evidence of innocence is inadmissible on strict legal grounds.
Other critics also accuse the CCRC of being too cautious: of the 13,368 applications received since it was set up, only 470 have been sent back to the court of appeal. Of the 449 so far ruled on, 314 have been quashed. The high success rate, claims Naughton, proves the CCRC is, at best, too cautious – and at worst, too in thrall to the whims of the court of appeal.
The campaigning Miscarriages of Justice Organisation agrees. John McManus, co-founder of the group, believes that as prison population continues to rise and the proportion of prisoners with mental illness rises with it, there are as many innocent people locked up as in the dark days of the 1970s.But the claims frustrate Foster. "It's utterly spurious to claim we're not interested in innocence," he says. "The claim that we wouldn't refer a case if we had evidence of innocence is both ridiculous and offensive. It is true that we're not in the business of seeking to establish who did and didn't commit a crime. We're in the business of establishing whether or not a conviction is safe – and our critics should be glad that we are."
Ewan Smith, former chair of the Serious Fraud Association and vice-chair of the Criminal Appeals Lawyers Assocation, feels a similar frustration. "In the four and a half years I've been on the Commission, I have only come across two people I believed to be absolutely innocent. In all the other cases I've sent back to the Court of Appeal, I've only been able to say I thought their conviction was unsafe," he says. "I have certainly referred people back who I personally believed were guilty."
Back in the tower block, the case committee is still trying to decide about the 14-year-old boy. The complexities of sister's accusation at the time of the trial, her later retraction and subsequent re-accusation has been put to one side, still undecided. Now the panel is trying to establish whether guidelines on the physical signs of rape updated by the Royal College of Pediatricians since the original trial, suggest that perhaps no crime took place after all.
"These knotty problems are very much par for the course in our work," said Foster. "A case where there are powerfully conflicting views, with one person repeatedly changing their evidence, and medical evidence that was unambiguous at the time of the original trial but which is now in doubt: it's all part of a usual day's work."
After three hours of deliberation, they refer. Not all members of the panel are happy but, says Foster, that is not unusual. "By their very nature, the cases that come before us are complex, controversial and contentious. They evoke strong passions," he says. "If there was clear proof of innocence or guilt, the case would not have reached our doors in the first place. Our remit may not please everyone but we confront the system and keep it honest. But if the system cannot safely prove someone is guilty, they must be considered innocent.
"That is our raison d'être. We believe it to our core."
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