Barry George’s success in winning his appeal against conviction for the murder of Jill Dando provides a timely reminder about the reality of British ‘justice’.
George was famously convicted in 2001 for the murder of BBC presenter Jill Dando.
The case was high profile with the conviction carrying all the classic ingredients for a miscarriage of justice.
A well-known victim and massive media interest generating pressure on the police to come up with a suspect.
George cut a sad figure. Portrayed as a loner with learning difficulties he hardly fitted the profile of what in the early stages was reported to be a professional killer. Despite the unlikelihood of George having done the murder he was convicted and sentenced to life.
Prior to the recent appeal court hearing there was an extraordinary intervention by Dando’s former fellow Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross who wrote to the appeal court judges insisting that the “judicial process got the right man”.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips rebuked the action saying that justice is administered in public and that any submissions should be made in court through the lawyers conducting the process.
The Ross intervention once again underlined the contrariness of the media in miscarriages of justice down the years.
In cases like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, the media initially played a significant role in fanning the lynch mob-style atmosphere that resulted in the convictions.
Meanwhile they managed little scrutiny of the police investigation.
Yet later, certain parts of the media played crucial roles in freeing those wrongly convicted. The World in Action team who did the docudrama Who Bombed Birmingham, Chris Mullin and journalists on the Independent and Guardian all played crucial roles.
For a time miscarriages of justice were flavour of the month. Programmes like the BBC’s Rough Justice and Channel 4 ‘s Trial and Error took up cases that often went on to the appeal court.
In the mid 1990s the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was set up to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice, created on the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (RCCJ) – established in 1991 following the successful appeal of the Birmingham Six.
Sadly, many in the media and political sphere seemed to think the CCRC’s establishment solved the problem of miscarriages even though a steady stream of innocent victims continued to make their way through the front doors of the Court of Appeal.
After the Birmingham Six came the Bridgewater Four, the East Ham Two, the Cardiff Three, Judy Ward, Stefan Kisko and Frank Johnson to name but a few.
Notably some of the people recently cleared have served much longer sentences – in the realms of 25 and 26 years – suggesting that it is more a case of justice delayed.
The reality is that there are probably far more miscarriage of justice victims in prison now than ever before. The prison population is more than 80,000. Campaigners have pointed out that if only 1 per cent of that number are unsafe convictions then at least 800 people now in prison could be innocent.
The CCRC does a comprehensive job but it is a slow process and the body is under resourced. Since it began work in 1997, the CCRC has referred 376 cases to the Court of Appeal. Some 236 convictions have been quashed and 102 upheld. The CCRC receive three or four new applications on each working day.
Despite publicity over recent years as to the plight of miscarriage victims, the aftercare and support remains piecemeal. It’s almost as if the system wishes to forget they ever existed.
Yet the victims of miscarriages of justice need lots of support if they are ever to get their lives back together again.
Dr Adrian Grounds reported the Birmingham Six had suffered “irreversible psychological damage,” similar to the trauma suffered by people who had been in serious car crashes. Few ever work again.
Recently, Jimmy Robinson, who was one of four men wrongly convicted for the murder of paperboy Carl Bridgewater died. He was 73. Released in 1997 after more than 20 years in prison Jimmy had struggled to get his life together again. He had some success but the compensation he received never made up for those lost years.
Dealing with the every day problems of life become traumatic for people who have spent years in prison fighting the system. One miscarriage of justice victim once told me he could deal with all the Home Office could throw at him but not with disputes in his own family.
Miscarriages of justice remain a massive problem for the criminal justice system and society as a whole. The plight of Barry George has briefly brought the issue back into the headlines.
There needs to be more resourcing provided to the CCRC so that it can deal with cases more rapidly.
There also needs to be more attention paid to the aftercare of the victims once they are released from prison.
Finally, it should be remembered that a person convicted of a crime that they did not commit is as much a victim as the old lady mugged on the street.