Category Archives: Commissions/Innocence Commissions/Governmental Case Review Agencies

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Progress on the Road to Valid, Reliable Forensics

NASNCFS

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States published it’s Congressionally commissioned report,  “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward,” in 2009.  This was in response to the realization that a lot of what goes on in forensics can be called “junk science.” That is, much of it is not scientifically proven, is not statistically valid, is not reliable, and is very subject to the biases of individual examiners. We have featured the NAS report previously on this blog here, here, and here.

Not surprisingly, the NAS report was met with “stonewall” and dismissive resistance from the extant forensics community, as well as the National Association of District Attorneys.  However, the report succeeded in bringing forensics under the scrutiny of scientific discipline, and made the public aware of its many shortcomings and failings.  Subsequently, it was announced in 2013 that the US Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would jointly form the National Commission on Forensic Science to provide guidelines and recommendations for the conduct and use of forensic technology.  The first meeting of the Commission was in February, 2014.

Continue reading

Parliamentary Inquiry into UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC)

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of the Guildford Four, (one of the notorious ‘Irish’ miscarriages of justice in England and Wales that led to the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission – see anniversary article here… ), controversy still surrounds the organisation. This week it was revealed that the body is ‘fast-tracking’ the case of professional footballer Ched Evans, released this week after serving half of a five year sentence for rape. Ched, who played for UnknownSheffield United football club, has always maintained his innocence and has applied to the CCRC to investigate his case. The CCRC’s explanations for the decision to fast-track his case have been unconvincing (read more here…). This negative publicity comes at a critical time for the CCRC, as a Parliamentary inquiry into the operation and effectiveness of the miscarriages body is launched by the Justice Committee. The Committee is inviting submissions from interested parties, in order to answer the following four questions:

  1. Whether the CCRC has fulfilled the expectations and remit which accompanied it at its establishment following the 1993 report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice
  2. Whether the CCRC has in general appropriate and sufficient (i) statutory powers and (ii) resources to carry out its functions effectively, both in terms of investigating cases and in the wider role of promoting confidence in the criminal justice system
  3. Whether the “real possibility” test for reference of a case to the Court of Appeal under section 13(1) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 is appropriate and has been applied appropriately by the CCRC
  4. Whether any changes to the role, work and remit of the CCRC are needed and, if so, what those changes should be.

The deadline for submissions is 5th December. You can read more here…. 

CCRC decides to fast-track review of Chis Evan’s high-profile conviction, but no clear reasons given

The UK Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has decided to prioritise its review of Chris Evan’s high-profile conviction. The Guardian reports that:

It would normally take around 18 months for the commission, which has a staff of 90, to examine a claim of miscarriage of justice. Instead, the commission has taken the unusual decision to examine Evans’s case within weeks. [...] However, [the CCRC spokesman] said that, after a request from Evans’s legal team to prioritise the case, “in line with our published policy on prioritisation, and in relation to the facts of the case and the issues raised in Mr Evans’s application to us … we now expect our substantive investigation to begin within the next few weeks.”

Problem is when the CCRC does not give any clear reasons as to why it chose to prioritise this case, particularly when it is has a huge existing back-log and this is high-profile case.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

What’s Next for Innocence Work in the UK?

From thejusticegap.com:  By Hannah Quirk

The End of Innocence, and The Chance of a New Beginning

The sudden demise of the Innocence Network UK (INUK) has caused consternation amongst those working with students on miscarriage of justice cases  – but it also offers a chance for anew beginning in clinical legal education in this country. Following my work at the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and an American innocence project, I argued in 2006, that criminal justice policy transfers between these two countries are not straightforward. Now seems a good opportunity to revisit some of those concerns.

Many of the problems with the work of INUK stem from the fact that it was just assumed that innocence projects were a good idea in this country. Innocence Projects in the USA are a commendable – if wholly inadequate – response to the appalling numbers who are wrongly convicted, with no hope of post-conviction legal assistance. These projects investigate and litigate cases that can also help campaign for criminal justice reforms. The situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is very different (Scotland has its own body).

In this country, a range of measures governing the collection and use of evidence has reduced the most egregious errors – the television series Life on Mars was founded on the audience recognising how policing had changed since the 1970s. Unlike in the USA, very few cases turn on DNA analysis which means that most appeals are on the basis of unsafety – we can never know with certainty whether the individuals were factually innocent or not. The nature of the caseload in this country is different; there far more are domestic sex abuse cases which bring unique investigatory challenges. Most significantly, we have a state funded body that investigates miscarriages of justice and refers cases back to the appeal court where appropriate.

Rather than continuing trying to shoehorn the work being done into the Innocence Network’s (trademarked) template, we have an opportunity to reflect on the experience gained over the last decade and consider the best way to proceed. Now is the time to think about what these projects are trying to achieve and what kind of assistance they can offer those claiming to be wrongly convicted. This needs to take into account the different types of cases in this country, the different level of legal education (undergraduate here rather than post-graduate in America) and how to work with the CCRC which remains the only mechanism for getting a conviction quashed. The most important consideration is, of course, how appellants are treated but there are also questions about students that require attention.

Assuming the university-led work is to continue, at what the CCRC chairman has said is a challenging time for his organisation, the following points are important:

  • Should ‘innocence’ be in the name? It is a compelling title but – as the projects have discovered – vanishingly few cases are of demonstrable innocence. The legal test that students need to apply is ‘unsafety’ – boring, bureaucratic but infinitely more protective of both suspects and the integrity of the criminal justice system. We should be teaching students – some of whom will become defence lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, journalists or politicians – why that test is so important. Students at the University of Northumbria who worked on Alex Allen’s successful referral and compensation claim, work from the Student Law Office for example.
  • What work should the students undertake? As Michael Naughton explained in his statement about INUK’s future, the realities of the undergraduate curriculum mean that it is difficult for students to dedicate sufficient time to a case. Any case that is not concluded in the academic year, has to wait to be reallocated, new students have to familiarise themselves with the case – and more time is lost for the applicant. This is unsatisfactory for students who do not see a case to completion, and dispiriting for applicants and their loved ones. In cases where there is a potential referral, this can mean a person spending years longer in prison than if they had gone directly to the CCRC. It might be more profitable for all concerned, if students focused on writing applications to the CCRC for applicants and monitoring the case progression, (as I understand students at the University of Leeds Innocence Project do). Research has indicated that CCRC applicants with legal assistance have a greater success rate). Those projects that want students to undertake investigations could focus on cases that have already been rejected by the CCRC so there is nothing to lose by any delay caused.
  • What should students not do? Emily Bolton, who founded the Innocence Project New Orleans(IPNO) and is now establishing the Centre for Criminal Appeals said in an interview the answers are not going to be in the office or on the phone but found by knocking on doors and revisiting crime scenes. If I’m missing a fact, I get my car keys and get out and find someone who can give me the answers.’ This encapsulates exactly why the US experience cannot be imported here – such actions could fatally compromise an appeal if the Court of Appeal considers it has been tainted. There are also risks to students engaging in such work – whether in contacting potential witnesses, sex offenders who enjoy rehearsing the details of their cases, or through the distressing nature of some of what they read. Kevin McMahon, founder of Merseyside Against Injustice, was convicted of perverting the course of justice for seeking a retraction statement from a prosecution witness before an appeal hearing.

In 2005, I left the CCRC and spent six months working at IPNO. I planned to conduct a piece of research comparing how miscarriages of justice are dealt with in the UK and the USA. Within a week, I realised that my project would have to change – the two systems were worlds apart.

I had left a well-funded, stable institution with statutory investigative powers, for an office that was scrabbling for funding, run by a handful of overworked staff supported by interns, was literally being eaten by termites, faced huge resistance from the police and prosecutors and was shortly to have to cope with Hurricane Katrina.

I was filled with admiration for the work of innocence projects but returned home with a renewed appreciation of the – obviously imperfect – system in this country. I found it baffling that the American model was being looked to for inspiration when what we had here was so much better.

None of this is intended as a criticism of those who have worked very hard to establish these projects over the last decade, but good intentions can still have unfortunate consequences. These cases are amongst the most difficult in the criminal justice system – despite all the problems with the National Health Service, most of us would be uncomfortable at the idea of medical students attempting brain surgery. Whilst the Americans may love Sherlock, importing the Scooby Doo model here (‘… and I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!’) is not necessarily the answer.

To misquote George Bernard Shaw, when it comes to wrongful convictions, America and England are separated by much more than a common language. This country has led the world in its response to wrongful convictions. Maybe the furore over INUK marks the time to set out on charting our own distinctive course in clinical legal education.