10:46, January 31 88 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-31 10:46:06
Innocent, jailed and uncompensated: these are the men our system fails

If you have the misfortune of being sent to prison for a crime that you didn’t commit, the odds against you clearing your name couldn’t be more vertiginously stacked. To have your conviction overturned, in most cases you have to apply to the miscarriage of justice watchdog, the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

We have a prison population of more than 82,000 and every year about 1,500 people, mainly prisoners, apply to the Birmingham-based group to have their cases looked at. Some 19 cases last year were referred back to the court of appeal, and only a dozen cases the year before. Over its 20-year history, two-thirds of referrals have been successful.

Like I said, not great odds, but it gets worse. If you do by some miracle have your wrongful conviction quashed, don’t expect an apology, or even for the court of appeal to acknowledge your innocence – and certainly don’t expect to be compensated for the hell of the lost years trapped in some violent and drug-infested hellhole.

On Wednesday morning, the supreme court ruled against two men, Sam Hallam and Victor Nealon, who, undoubtedly innocent, between them spent almost a quarter of a century behind bars – both were victims of appalling police investigations (Nealon is suing West Mercia police), and both were badly failed by the courts. They had their convictions overturned by the court of appeal but only in the most begrudging way.

I have interviewed both men. They emerged from prison damaged in their own different ways. Nealon served an extra 10 years over tariff because he refused to admit guilt for a crime that he didn’t commit. He left HMP Wakefield in December 2013 with just three hours’ notice, £46 in his pocket and a train ticket to Shrewsbury but nowhere to stay. Hallam was just 17 years old when he was sent to prison. His tragedy was compounded by the suicide of his father, who killed himself while his son was still in prison.

So on Wednesday the supreme court considered whether the Ministry of Justice had unlawfully denied the pair compensation. It was a test case, and many had hoped that the justices would take the opportunity to look at what it meant to be a “miscarriage of justice” in the context of the responsibility of the state to such a person. However, the majority of judges denied the appeal, ruling that not all victims of miscarriages of justice are entitled to compensation. Nealon’s lawyer has said they will appeal to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

The two men had argued that the statutory compensation scheme was not compatible with the presumption of innocence as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. The pair had been denied compensation by Chris Grayling during his disastrous tenure as justice secretary under a law passed by the then home secretary, Theresa May.

The coalition government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 must surely rank as the most mean-spirited pieces of legislation of that government (and I include Grayling’s infamous “book ban” for prisoners). Under the new arrangements, to be eligible for compensation you now have to demonstrate your innocence “beyond reasonable doubt”. It is a hurdle that reverses the presumption of innocence, and is almost impossible to surmount in the absence of DNA evidence. By the way, Nealon had his conviction for attempted rape overturned after DNA evidence pointed to another attacker.

The damage done to Hallam, who spent seven years in prison for a gang-related murder he had always denied any involvement in, is profound and likely to be lifelong. Just before Christmas I interviewed Patrick Maguire, who was just 14, when he was sent to prison for five years for crimes he didn’t commit. He was the youngest of the “Maguire Seven”, an innocent family swept up in the hysteria following the Guildford Four pub bombings in 1974. The Guildford Four and Maguire Seven had their convictions overturned, in 1989 and 1991 respectively, and public outrage at such scandals was supposed to have led to major reforms of the justice system.

Maguire visited Hallam in prison in 2006 and, convinced of his innocence, campaigned for his release. As viewers of the often harrowing new BBC documentary A Great British Injustice: the Maguire Story will appreciate, Maguire remains traumatised by the experiences over four decades ago. As a boy he was put in solitary confinement when sent to prison because prison staff were concerned about his “suicidal tendencies”. That was the first time Maguire understood you could take your own life.

“My biggest sentence started when I was released – and Sam will have to go through this too,” Maguire said when Hallam was eventually freed, in 2015. Maguire did receive compensation – as well as an apology from the then prime minister, Tony Blair, in 2005. Between 2000 and 2005, 187 people successfully applied for compensation. In the last five years, only five people received payouts – and not a single penny was paid last year.

The way we treat the wrongly convicted is a scandal. This week’s contribution from the highest court in the land doesn’t help a bit.

Jon Robins is a journalist who writes about the law and justice

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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