Special Report (Wrongful Convictions): Time to shine a light on the innocent

From the Irish Examiner:

Anne Driscoll, Innocence Project

I know a man named Angel who spent 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. During his incarceration, both his mother and the mother of his children died and he exhausted all his appeals. He was fated to die in prison without any chance of parole.

He was fortunate enough, however, to be freed this spring after a 10-year investigation by the Justice Brandeis Law Project of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University convinced a judge in Massachusetts to throw out his conviction.

If only this was an isolated story of injustice.

Back in the Second World War era in New Inn, Co Tipperary, Harry Gleeson was a fiddler, a farmhand, and a greyhound handler, a quiet but well-liked man. He was hanged in 1941 for the murder of a neighbor, Moll McCarthy, all of which was both scandalous and newsworthy at the time.

And when news of Harry’s exoneration of that murder broke earlier this year, it also garnered enormous press coverage. However, behind the headlines, what many people in smartphone-era Ireland don’t understand is that what happened to Harry — being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit — can happen to anyone, anywhere, still today.

What happened to Harry — being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit — can happen to anyone, anywhere, still today.

Prior to the late 80s, it was assumed that if someone was convicted, they were most likely guilty. However, with the introduction of DNA evidence in courts in the UK in 1987 and in the US in 1988, this forensic tool demonstrated unequivocally that the justice system doesn’t always work and thus the birth of the innocence movement occurred.

That began in 1992 as the Innocence Project in New York City has now grown internationally to include 68 separate innocence projects under the aegis of the Innocence Network, including the Irish Innocence Project, founded by Griffith College dean of law David Langwallner in 2009.

Research over the past two decades since has revealed that about 2.3% to 5% of all convictions are wrong and that eyewitness misidentifications, faulty science, police or prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel, false confessions, or snitch evidence are the most common contributing factors.

The toll such a miscarriage of justice takes is nearly incalculable.

And any wrongful conviction is always a double miscarriage of justice, as an innocent person has been convicted and the guilty person has not been held accountable, often free to commit more crimes.

Since 2009, the Irish Innocence Project — the only innocence project in Ireland and providing all its services for free — has trained nearly 100 student caseworkers from Griffith College, Trinity College, and DCU, working under the supervision of pro bono lawyers, to investigate cases believed to be wrongful convictions and uncover new evidence — the basis of establishing a Miscarriages of Justice claim in the Irish courts.

And their work has paid powerful dividends.

  • This year, Minister of Justice Frances Fitzgerald expressed regret and sympathy for the wrongful hanging of Harry Gleeson. This is our first exoneration and the first time in Irish history for such a posthumous presidential pardon has been made;
  • A High Court decision defined the mechanism for post-conviction access to DNA testing — something every state in the US provides for;
  • We are, this month, offering submissions in a case before the Greek Supreme Court;
  • We hosted the Irish Innocence Project International Wrongful Conviction Conference and Film Festival on 26-27 June 2015 at Griffith College Dublin featuring addresses by Dr Mary McAleese, Guildford Four defence lawyer Gareth Peirce, Innocence Project co-founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and In the Name of the Father director Jim Sheridan and drew 200 delegates from 15 countries, including the attorney general of Thailand;
  • The Irish Innocence Project and the Italy Innocence Project now co-direct the European Innocence Network, which will vet and validate new and developing innocence projects as the movement expands.
    English jurist William Blackstone recognised the dire consequences of a wrongful conviction when he said: “It is better that 10 guilty people escape than that one innocent person suffer.”

We are attempting to better balance those scales of justice. It is an aim that none other than Sean McBride dedicated his life to. McBride was Harry Gleeson’s junior counsel and it is believed that his experience representing an innocent, but ultimately doomed man, was the genesis of his later role in the founding of Amnesty International.

That aim continues in the founding of the nnocence Network and its expansion beyond the US with the European Innocence Network, where the Irish Innocence Project has taken a lead and dedicated itself to investigate injustices, right them whenever possible and prevent other Harry Gleeson cases from happening.

The Irish Innocence Project is a Revenue-approved charity that provides all its services for free and relies on donations to do the work it does. For more information or to donate, please visit http://www.innocenceproject.ie/donate/.

Anne Driscoll is the Journalist Project Manager of the Irish Innocence Project, a 2013-2014 US Fulbright Scholar and the senior reporter of the Justice Brandeis Law Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

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