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Article: Show us the evidence

(Posted on 02/09/22)

Article: Show us the evidence

This article was originally published in Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees

By Rachelle Cobain, Inside Justice

Innocent prisoners have been thrown a potential lifeline by the Law Commission after they announced a 

wide-scale review into the criminal appeals system. After years of campaigning, we at Inside Justice are relieved to see that the ‘Real Possibility Test’ which directs the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) will be examined as well as policy and practices around retention and disclosure of evidence post-conviction. 

Roger’s case 

We know first-hand how systemic failures in the criminal justice system are leading to miscarriages of justice being left unresolved and lives shattered. Our work on ‘Keep the Evidence: It’s the Law’, which raised awareness on the issue of evidence retention by police forces in England and Wales, was the result of the heartbreaking case of Roger Kearney who asked for our help after being wrongly convicted of murder in 2010. The chance to prove Roger’s innocence and identify the real killer vanished when we found vital exhibits had been destroyed, lost or contaminated by Hampshire Constabulary. Those of you who watch true crime shows may have seen this devastating moment captured on the BBC TV series: ‘Conviction: Murder at the Station’. 

Numerous cases

Despite the police failing to meet their legal duty to safely store these materials for an appeal, they didn’t face any repercussions or sanctions and, when the cameras stopped rolling, our founder Louise Shorter discovered this issue was far from uncommon. Louise uncovered numerous cases where police officers had lost evidence post-conviction and teamed up with Professor Carole McCartney to understand the scale of the problem. Our survey of police personnel found more than 75% of respondents experienced investigations in which they had been unable to locate exhibits, and nearly two-thirds had a case where evidence had not been stored with the required integrity, security and continuity. The picture is no better pre-trial; over 11,000 cases, including 21 homicides and 220 sexual offences, failed to go to trial over a 21-month period because of lost evidence. 

Boxes of evidence

The system isn’t just unfair, it’s shameful. Urgent action is clearly required to improve the situation and that of post-conviction disclosures of material and exhibits. Since the Nunn Judgment at the Supreme Court, police forces have refused to release material to anyone other than the CCRC and we have been vocal in our efforts to change this. We have applicants who are in prison today serving life sentences for crimes we believe they did not commit, while boxes of evidence remain untouched because police forces deny us access to carry out reviews – including forensic testing. 

Significant opportunity

This research took five years, with generous support from this newspaper and our funders. The work is slow and difficult, but the Law Commission review represents a significant opportunity to ensure that the appeal system – which includes protecting the rights of prisoners who claim innocence to challenge evidence and mount an appeal – is fair, open and transparent. Anything less is failing not only innocent prisoners but also the victims of crime and risks the loss of public confidence in the system.

Rachelle Cobain provides media and marketing support to Inside Justice.

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