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Helen's Law could keep the wrongfully convicted in jail

By Geir Madland on 11/07/19

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Helen's Law could keep the wrongfully convicted in jail

“It's hard to lose a loved one in any circumstances, but to have them murdered is horrific,” Ms McCourt’s mother Marie told BBC Breakfast, “but then not to have their remains to be able to go and put flowers on, it's a grief that can't come out of you. I could say I've had a dripping tap on my head for the last 31 years. It's far worse than that, it's a pain in your heart that will never go.”

Ian Simms, convicted of the murder after blood and an earring matching Helen’s were found in his car boot, and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 16 years, has never revealed the location of her remains, consisitently claiming he is innocent. Comparisons have been made with Ian Brady’s refusal to divulge the whereabouts of victim Keith Bennett.

“I wrote to him, begging him ‘please, please just tell me and you will not hear from me again’,” Mrs McCourt said of Simms. “I still hope he will remain in prison until he tells me. I hope one day I will know.”

MPs voted for the introduction of Helen's Law back in 2016 but, the following year, Justice Minister Phillip Lee said such a move risked creating “perverse incentives” for murderers to lie about burial places, causing further “unthinkable” pain for victims’ families.

The Ministry of Justice claims that guidance is “already clear” in that offenders who withhold information may be denied release but Helen's Law will, for the first time, make it a legal requirement for the Parole Board to consider this concealment.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman added: “The government is acting to acknowledge the particular anguish faced by families who do not have the chance to lay their loved ones to rest.”

One of the first people to be convicted on DNA evidence in the absence of a body, Simms is now on day release in readiness for his release after 30 years inside. He has previously stated: “If I knew where the body was, I would never have done 16 years extra in prison, would I?”

In 1999, together with Michael O’Brien, Ian Simms challenged a ban on prisoners having access to journalists, brought in by Michael Howard in 1995 in response to a complaint from Marie McCourt’s MP. Mrs McCourt argued that: “Prisoners should not have the privilege of contact with journalists [to] publicise either their cases, for monetary gain or to boost their egos and self esteem.”

Lawyers for Jack Straw, then home secretary, argued that allowing prisoners visits from journalists would harm prison discipline, and stories related in the media would upset relatives of the crime victims.

But, in an influential affidavit, solicitor Gareth Peirce told the judges there was no legal aid for investigations and more than 90% of applicants to the newly created Criminal Cases Review Commission had no solicitor. Cases with the best chance of being taken up by the CCRC were those which “arrive at the commission fully researched and investigated with new evidence compellingly presented”, and resources available to television and the press provided the best chance of discovering new evidence. 

The challenge succeeded, with Lord Steyn determining that interviews with prisoners “had served to identify and undo a substantial number of miscarriages of justice”.

The anguish of victims’ families is undeniable but Helen’s Law will increase the injustice received by anyone wrongfully convicted and genuinely continuing to maintain their innocence. Only the real murderer knows the whereabouts of their victim’s remains.