Famous Miscarriages of Justice

Everyone would like to believe that Justice Systems convict the guilty and clear the innocent. However, even the best justice systems in the World occasionally get it completely wrong. In England and Wales there have been several famous miscarriages of justice. Everyone can name some of these travesties of justice, in which the court found innocent people guilty, or otherwise gave a false verdict. Miscarriages of justice occur mainly in criminal courts, but, as one recent example makes clear, no court or tribunal is immune. These sometimes occurred because there was false or doctored evidence, other times because of bias within the justice system, sometimes the court relied on unreliable expert witness testimony, or because circumstantial evidence was apparently compelling, but false.  

Two very famous cases arise from “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and the IRA bombing campaigns. The “Guildford Four” and “the Maguire Seven” were notorious cases, which brought about changes in the law. Two pub bombings in Guildford Surrey and Woolwich, London, killed five and injured more than a hundred people. The eleven defendants in the two separate cases were the first arrested and questioned under The Police and Terrorism Act 1974. A court found The Guildford Four, Gerald Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson, guilty of murder and conspiracy in October 1975. They received life sentences. The Defence appeal failed in 1977 despite the fact that other IRA suspects, in the Balcombe Street Bombings stated they had committed the bombings.

In 1987, following an Avon and Somerset police enquiry, new evidence emerged, so compelling was this evidence, that the Home Secretary referred the case for review. The subsequent case review discovered that someone had interfered with interview typescripts and notes, falsified custody records and that police and others used to procure confessions. The original prosecution case relied heavily on the four confessions. The four defendants, having served fifteen years imprisonment, successfully appealed in October 1989, when a court found the verdict in their case unsafe and unsatisfactory.

This outcome prompted review of the Maguire case. Anne and Patrick Maguire, their sons Patrick and Vincent, Anne’s brother, Sean Smythe, and brother-in-law, Patrick Giuseppe Conlan and Patrick O’ Farrell a family friend were convicted of supplying and making the bombs used in the two pub bombings, in 1976. The Court of Appeal overturned Maguire seven’s sentences. The Home Secretary’s interim report on the review criticized Trial Judge Mr. Justice Donaldson and found improper handling of scientific evidence, and an undisclosed statement backing Patrick Conlan’s alibi. The Court of Appeal further found that Metropolitan police officers beat some defendants into confessing and withheld evidence, which would have cleared the seven. They therefore quashed the seven sentences in 1991. The seven had by then served the sentences.

In an astonishing postscript to the two cases, Tony Blair, Labour Prime Minister apologized to the eleven wrongfully convicted people in 2005, publicly exonerating them from any guilt. These two cases led to reviews of several other Terrorism cases, which in turn led to the Court of Appeal’s overturning the Birmingham six’s convictions, in 1991, for similar reasons to the previous two cases.    

Unreliable scientific evidence, undisclosed statements, and police bullying during questioning also wrongly convicted Stefan Kizko. Mr. Kizko wrongly served 16 years in prison for sexually assaulting and murdering 11-year-old Lesley Moleseed. The police suppressed medical evidence, proving Mr. Kizko medically incapable of committing the offences. Mr. Kizko’s defence team contributed to the problems by running a defence to manslaughter, which allowed the prosecution to shoot down his laims of innocence. Mr.Kizko mounted several failed appeals against conviction.

In 1991, after pressure from Mr. Kizko’s mother and two private detectives, who she hired to investigate Stefan’s case, Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker referred the case to West Yorkshire Police for reinvestigation. They found investigating officers suppressed the evidence proving Kizko incapable of the offences and a statement, giving him a firm alibi for the time of the murder. He was finally released in 1992 after the Court of Appeal cleared him of the murder. A court convicted someone else on forensic evidence in 2006.

These injustices and many other wrongful convictions, led to changes in both the justice system and criminal law. The establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Body, The Crown Prosecution service, independent of the police The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, The Criminal Proceedings and Investigations Act 1996, attempt to regulate police behaviour, safeguard defendants’ rights from arrest to trial and separate investigation from prosecution.

However, these reforms did not and could not help the Hillsborough scandal, which arose originally from a Coroner’s inquest case. When police opened the wrong gate at Hillsborough football stadium, sending more football fans into an already over crowded area of the ground, 96 people died and hundreds were injured. The Inquest returned accidental death verdicts on the 96 dead people. The victims’ families campaigned for twenty years against the verdicts. Despite several enquiries, they were unsuccessful until Alan Johnson established The Hillsborough Independent Panel; its report found that police had altered 160 witness statements to blame Liverpool fans for the disaster. It found that police action endangered public safety on many levels. It determined that further failures compounded the original police failure and that the verdicts on 41 of the 96 dead were unsafe. In December 2012, The High Court quashed the original inquest verdicts. Home Secretary Theresa May ordered an investigation, which found a police conspiracy to cover up their own failings by masking it appear that Liverpool fans were drunken, rioting, hooligans.

While most democratic justice systems seek to do justice in all cases, injustice is not always eliminated. Mistakes, omissions, wrongdoing, and deliberate cover-ups lead to terrible injustices. It is trite tenets of English law that it is better that ten guilty men go free, than that one person be convicted unjustly. When miscarriages of justice occur, they should lead to changes within the system, preventing their re-occurrence. However, often the justice system ignores evidence such as that in the Guildford Four Case, when the Balcombe Street bombers made a clear statement, through their legal team, during their case, that they committed the pub bombings for which the four were imprisoned. When the justice system doggedly ignores such statements, it makes the law an ass. Personnel within the justice system from the most junior police officer to the most senior judge should always act properly, because they are dealing with other people’s precious liberty, lives and reputations. No human invention or undertaking can be perfect, but the Justice system can, and should be, the best that human ingenuity and integrity can make it.