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The Case of Danny McNamee

Lin Solomon

By Lin Solomon on 03/08/14

The Case of Danny McNamee

In the early1990's I had never heard of Danny McNamee when a friend said a Francis McNamee would like to meet me to see if I could help make a TV film about his brother, Danny.  The tale was that Danny had been wrongly convicted for the Hyde Park bombing. I remembered the early 1980's Hyde Park and Regent's Park bombings. Who wouldn't? The bombing had dominated the press for days. Dead soldiers of the Royal Guard, dead horses. Very grisly.   I was skeptical that there could be yet more wrongly convicted Irish prisoners since, by that time, the Guildford Four, Judith Ward and Birmingham Six had been exonerated. Nevertheless, I did agree to meet Francis.  

I read the materials, including the (invaluable) full transcript of Danny’s trial. I had to agree there seemed very little evidence to connect Danny to the bombing, and what was there was of dubious provenance.  I wrote it up and sent a proposal to Channel Four, the broadcaster that then commissioned the most from independent production companies. Each of the three following years I sent in that proposal. And each time it was rejected. Finally, I was advised to send it to a producer at "Trial and Error” a Channel 4 series wholly dedicated to programmes about wrongful convictions. Agreement was reached and the programme went forward.  

The “Trial and Error” team had once been part of the BBC's "Rough Justice", but sensing a growing lack of commitment from the BBC hierarchy, they had departed to form an independent company, snagging a long running commission from Channel 4.  The producer told me he had always felt somewhat shamed that the BBC had never agreed to make a programme about any of the wrongful convictions associated with the Troubles.  

Once word got out that a TV programme about Danny's case was in production, I got a call from Judy Ward who, rather huffily, instructed me that Danny needed a proper campaign, not just a film. I could not have agreed more.  Although Danny's family stuck by him, supporters in Ireland were campaigning, they all lived in Ireland. Danny was in the hole in England. It was the English court that would have to hear his case for exoneration. And, at that time the Criminal Cases Review Commission[1] did not exist. It was the Home Secretary who had the authority to direct the matter back to the court of appeal.   Judy said call someone called Paul May because he had organized the Birmingham Six Campaign. I went to see him with a lawyer friend, Fran Carey.  Paul agreed to organize a campaign on a proper footing, and we raised money through the kindness and energy of Jeremy Hardy and other comedians who staged benefit gigs.  The campaign gathered steam and lobbied MPs, MEPs, and TDs in the Irish Republic. If American politicians were in town, and we got wind of it, we brazenly cold-called them, too, securing meetings, much to our own surprise. The fact that elected representatives raised Danny’s case in various jurisdictions helped. 

The most difficult aspect of the entire TV programme-making part of the story was the relationship with Danny’s lawyer, who is famously controlling, disliked the media and seemed to fear the film’s broadcast more than appreciate what its broadcast could do to create a helpful atmosphere within which legal argument could secure Danny’s exoneration.  Indeed, about a week before broadcast I was called by the Trial and Error producer who unhappily told me that Danny's lawyer had threatened Channel Four with an injunction if the programme was broadcast. Contact was made with Danny and his instruction was unequivocal and without hesitation: broadcast the film.

Generally, because the media landscape has altered considerably, it may be more worthwhile for campaigners to concentrate on getting persistent news coverage rather than single programmes that are broadcast only once. The purpose is to inform the public, and to let the legal and political establishment know that you are not going away until the wrong is put right.

I gave up working in television. I now practice law in the U.S.  What the Innocence Project, (an American organization of lawyers and campaigners), says about access to justice in the United States is equally relevant to the United Kingdom,

The resources of the justice system are often stacked against poor defendants. Matters only become worse when a person is represented by an ineffective, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyer. The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people. When a defense lawyer doesn't do his or her job, the defendant suffers. Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse.

In the United States wrongful convictions have led to death row.

The takeaway from all this is the following:

Good luck in your endeavours!

[1] Just before the broadcast of the programme The Criminal Cases Review Commission was formed, we lobbied Danny’s case, and it became the very first case accepted by that Commission for review.