Monday, December 17, 2012

Miscarriages of Justice

That the criminal justice system is quite fallible is something that we all prefer to never think about. When a person is convicted, it is a rare individual who immediately wonders if the verdict is correct.

This outlook is, perhaps, a necessary one. In a world we broadly believe to be governed by laws and reason, a mindset which doubts the essential goodness of the mechanisms of justice would perpetually face a bleak vista. To doubt the institutions which are intended to bind together our disparate wishes into a coherent social whole is to necessarily feel somehow vulnerable, as if life is far more unpredictable - dangerous, even - than these institutions should allow.

And so we bumble through life broadly, unthinkingly, assuming that all is tickety-boo. Until there are those very public moments when an injustice is so blatant, has become so cancerous in the body of Justice, that it has to be expelled - leaving a delighted, angry and bewildered person being dumped on the street outside of the Court of Appeal.

Only then do we have the courage to unblinkingly, if fleetingly, somehow admit that bad things do happen and rarely by simple "error" or "mistake". The scales of justice are weighted against defendants and tipped resolutely against the convicted - rightly or wrongly. The sight of these rare public exonerations often pleases people, as if somehow they reveal that right will ultimately prevail, that our system of Justice will ultimately hold Truth to its bosom.

I don't see it that way. Having shared anger and many cups of tea with innocent men as we navigated through the carceral archipeligo, I had the comfort in the face of difficulty to know that I was, at least, guilty. The innocent do not, and their experience can only be a living nightmare.

Juries do make mistakes. But the path to Justice usually goes badly awry long before the tainted, mis-shapen and partial evidence reaches them. And it persists long afterwards, as the Court of Appeal seemingly resolutely twists and turns to salvage a conviction that all other eyes can see has so eroded in the face of examination that it has become an empty declaration.

The resources aimed at miscarriages of justice are minuscule, though the efforts of those involved are profoundly personal and often Herculean. At times such effort must appear to Sisyphean. And yet to those who daily suffer the indignities of being shut behind bars by screws who say "happiness is door shaped", the work of miscarriage of justice groups must sometimes offer the only sliver of sanity in a life which is otherwise a construct of the insane.

We forget, to our peril, that Justice is not only blind but profoundly human - and that means fallible, venal, stupid, malicious, lazy and corrupt. And to imprison the innocent is a wickedness that we all too often ignore in our rush to condemn those who believe have harmed us.

They deserve better. Our system of Justice deserves better. And, most of all, those innocents need us all.


  1. *I awoke today in a rather playful mood and so here is the new policy on comments. I have signposted it before but here it is in plain speak - stay on topic, or comment risks being deleted.

    As an outlet for the silly buggers, I will post a thread entitled Random Abuse and Stuff, where those wishing to just bore me with crap can leave their comments. This way those who wish to read them can, and those who wish to read a thread without the abuse can do so.

    This will almost certainly please no one!

  2. Too clever for your own good Ben, but not as clever as you thought eh??
    You should have left the original response on here; look at the shitstorm that's erupting amongst the faithful ...

    1. You call them "the faithful"....and yet here they are, giving me grief! Funny sort of "faithful", eh? But then, you should be used to being wrong.

      And for the record, I'm not half as clever as I look but twice as clever as I thought :)

    2. 20 odd years over tariff isn't clever by any definition of the word ....

  3. Good blog Ben - I have first hand experience of an innocent person in prison - probably the worst thing that has ever happened to that person! One of the soul destroying things about putting an innocent person in prison is that no-one in authority cares one iota about it - people are just left and there is no space in the system that can even consider that perhaps someone is not guilty. Just look at the Appeal Courts - hundreds of cases and some of them really are innocent. What can be done.

  4. Good blog post. From a young age I remember the phrase "better a thousand guilty men go free, than one free man go to prison' from my father (for a short period of time a police man). Myself, having virtually no contact with the Criminal justice system, am probably one of the masses you refer to and assume (very possibly wrongly?) that this ethos runs through the institutions. One reason I read this blog is to understand more and assume less.

    That said It is understandable (if difficult to stomach) that there is not equivalent resource for appeals as prosecutions. The prosecutions process of being innocent until proven guilty, and then beyond all reasonable doubt still sounds a fine principle. I don't know if there are systematic failings within that, or just sporadic and very sad mistakes.


  5. That was of course ..."one INNOCENT man go to prison"...


  6. The disturbing thing about miscarriages of justice is that the convictions are usually on evidence that one would consider 'watertight'. Wrong eyewitness accounts, false confesssions and 'junk science' forensic evidence all feature heavily. These are all bits of evidence that would sway a jury towards a guilty verdict.

    The Guildford Four, I believe; were convicted on all of those things.

  7. This is my first visit to this site and I think it is one of the best postings I have seen - ever, anywhere. And that is saying a lot.
    I'm Irish, living in Somerset, not far from Shepton prison. I'll never forget the "appalling vista" judgement (look it up) but tend to forget that the English system has always been as cruel to its own as it is / was to innocent Irish.