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Supreme Court Hearing Bid for Exhibits

(Posted on 14/03/14)


The much anticipated legal challenge to a police force’s refusal to allow new forensic testing on murder exhibits was heard at the Supreme Court on the 13th March writes Louise Shorter. It is a case which will have far-reaching implications for anybody protesting their innocence for years to come as the historic practice of police forces releasing key information and exhibits post-conviction could be forced to end.

A panel of five Law Lords, sitting in the highest court in the land, heard a full day of legal argument around the issue of whether there is a duty to disclose information and exhibits post-conviction to anybody convicted of a crime which they claim they did not do.  The action has come following Suffolk Constabulary’s refusals, over the past nine years, to release key forensic exhibits to Kevin Nunn who was convicted in 2006 of the murder of his former girlfriend Dawn Walker.

The court heard the force initially refused requests by Mr Nunn’s legal team for items such as the victim’s clothing and intimate swabs on the basis that all relevant work had been done.  The force further stated at that time that specific exhibits, such as sperm found on the victim which had not yielded a result at the time of the trial, should be retained and preserved until such time that scientific advances would allow the killer’s DNA to be found.  On behalf of Kevin Nunn, Queen’s Counsel Hugh Southey submitted a forensic report in which it was stated that new work with a high probability of success is now possible and said “that time has now come.”

Suffolk Constabulary and the Criminal Prosecution Service argued that no prisoner should have the right to access information and exhibits post-conviction claiming that the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which has the power to refer cases back to the Court of Appeal, already has statutory powers to secure exhibits. In response the court heard the Commission, which in 2012-13 received over 1500 applications, is widely known to be under-resourced and over-stretched. The case of Victor Nealon, who recently had his conviction for a sexual offence quashed was put before the court. The CCRC in that case had twice refused Mr Nealon’s requests for new scientific work to be done. The new evidence which secured his release after serving 17 years for the crime he did not commit was only found when his solicitor secured access to exhibits and commissioned the work himself.  

Historically solicitors, journalists and campaigners have frequently made requests to police forces for disclosure of exhibits and information. The court heard that in the vast majority of cases police forces had co-operated with such requests and it was suggested that Suffolk Constabulary has been the exception, rather than the rule, in its catalogue of refusals. Inside Justice has in recent months had murder exhibits released by South Yorkshire Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police.   On behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, it was suggested that early applications from Mr Nunn’s former legal team had been too broad and far ranging leading the force to conclude that it would not comply on the grounds that they would not facilitate what amounted to a ‘re-investigation’ of the crime by Mr Nunn’s own team.  

Speaking outside the court Brigitte Butcher, Kevin Nunn’s sister, said “Kevin knows he has right on his side.  He has always pushed for new forensic work. Why would he put himself out there in this way if he had something to hide?”

Counsel on behalf of Suffolk Constabulary confirmed exhibits relating to the murder of Dawn Walker had been properly retained and added “the CCRC is acting in the public interest and will take on all the work.  The door is not closed to this appellant.”

Judgment was reserved and is expected to be handed down sometime before the Court breaks for the summer recess at the end of July 2014.  Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme solicitor James Saunders asked reminded listeners that while legal arguments continue over the legal framework impacting on all prisoners who may wish to unearth new evidence capable of clearing their name; this began and remains one man’s fight for justice.  If the Supreme Court rules that Kevin Nunn does not have the right to ask Suffolk Constabulary to release exhibits, he will have to apply to join the CCRC’s waiting list.  The last Inside Justice case submitted to the Commission waited in a queue for almost a year before a case-worker was even assigned. 

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