« View all Articles

Help Us To Help You

By Ben Gunn on 30/06/13

Help Us To Help You

From Inside Time July 2013 

Being a caseworker here at Inside Justice is fascinating. Attempting to piece together all the elements of a potential miscarriage of justice is rather like taking apart a building to see how it was built in the first place.

My role is as a tiny administrative cog in a larger machine populated by those with far greater experience and expertise, but tend to be the first port of call for cases. Fighting off my homicidal cat, I sit at my table, scrabble to find something to put on the TV in the background, flex my fingers and unleash the greatest invention of human intellect the internet. Your letters arrive in the office, get scanned, and then emailed to ;me by Louise, The Boss (not to be confused with Eric McGraw, The Boss of Everything).

I then read everything you send, summarise it and recommend our response to Louise. Sometimes I'm right! Letters and First Response Forms are then sent out to you. And this form is crucial, for it asks you for information that the initial incoming letters rarely contain. Reading a letter that just says I'm innocent, can you please help? tends to ruin my morning coffee what the hell am I meant to do with that?!

Which is why filling in the First Response Form is so vital. If done properly, it gives us enough information to be able to give a sensible response. Sometimes that is a no, we cannot see a way to help; and sometimes we can say yes,we think we can. Either way, we need information.  And sometimes, information is the last thing you seem to want to share with us. One question on the form asks what the evidence against you was. Some people tell us I don't know or none. I appreciate the vagaries of the human mind and memory, but answers like that are cobblers. The Prosecution stood up and said something, didn't they? You may not have liked it or agreed with it, but it was enough to persuade a jury.

Many people approach us with pages of arguments as to why they are innocent. Useful stuff, but what is central in dealing with a miscarriage of justice is to know the worst evidence against you not the best version of events, but the worst. For it is that worst version that convicted you, and that's the version that needs to be unravelled before the Court of Appeal can do its business. And that is the information some of you don't like to share.

We are diligent researchers. The first thing I do is Google. And nothing is more frustrating than finding a news report or court papers that reveal crucial pieces of information that you have forgotten to tell us. We will find out, so please be up-front from the beginning. We understand that even a case that looks overwhelmingly guilty may not be all that it seems. However, our work can cut both ways; there are times when we will discover evidence which goes to confirm guilt and we will expect to commission any test which has the potential ;to prove innocence or guilt, not just cherry pick according to your wish-list. Inside Justice works towards the ends of justice, to free the genuinely innocent from prison, and this work is taken very seriously. If you are guilty, please do not ask us to find a legal technicality or error to free you. With limited resources our focus is on the genuinely innocent.

There are cases which, by their very nature, are incredibly difficult to progress. Historical abuse cases are often impossible for us to help with, as are the he said, she said rape convictions. Whilst there are such cases where surrounding evidence may be capable of being useful, the question we ultimately ask ourselves is what we can do to test the evidence, if that comes down to whether the accuser is sticking to their story, the options open to us will be extremely limited.

So help us to help you. In your initial letter, try to include some details of your conviction. When you fill in the First Response Form, include all the bad stuff said against you and try to send some sort of official summary of the trial such as the Judge's Summing Up which is the best place for us to start from. If you have any papers relating to an Appeal even if the Advice concluded that there were no identifiable grounds that's a document we'd like to see as are forensic and DNA reports. We do not want reams and reams of notes in your own fair hand, give us the official court documents mentioned and we'll ask you for more as and when necessary. If you haven't got any court papers, just write a simple 1 or 2 page letter with the key information about the evidence in court and we'll take it from there.

Working to free the wrongly convicted is a long and gruelling task. Please help us to make it just a little bit easier.

Ben Gunn is a former prisoner