Omar Benguit and the lack of accountability in our justice system
The case of a man who has spent almost 17 years for the murder of Korean student in Bournemouth raises serious cases about the lack of transparency in the justice system, the editor of the Justice Gap argued this week.
In an interview with BBC South for its evening news, Jon Robins was interviewed about the case of Omar Benguit who has always claimed that he was innocent of the murder of Jong-Ok Shin (known as Oki) in Bournemouth in July 2002.
The case features in Jon’s new book Guilty Until Proven Innocent: the crisis in our justice system which was published this week. You can order Guilty Until Proven Innocence: The crisis in our justice system HERE.
Omar Benguit, a former heroin addict, was convicted for the murder of Oki almost entirely on the evidence of a drug addict and prostitute known as ‘BB’. There was no forensic or CCTV evidence and the prosecution comprised almost entirely of BB’s account supported by circumstantial evidence from 13 addicts who used the same crack house.
Jon Robins told the BBC’s Sally Taylor how he was approached by an academic from Portsmouth University who was investigating his case and convinced of his innocence. ‘She wrote to me and said Omar Benguit was sent to prison, had been imprisoned for the best part of 17 years, and had been through three trials and all there was of the court documentation was 40-odd pages,’. ‘All of the court transcripts had been lost. The case highlights the lack of accountability in our justice system.’
In Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Robins explains that although all Crown Court trials are recorded digitally, the recordings are deleted after seven years under Ministry of Justice guidelines – this includes judge’s summing up which is essential for any chance of an appeal. Audio tapes are destroyed after five years (since 2011 proceedings have been recorded digitally). In the Benguit case only the judge’s summing up survives.
The concern about the lack of court transcripts was one of the reasons for the Open Justice Charter initiative which comprises a series of demands for greater transparency and accountability and which featured in the Justice Gap’s Proof magazine, issue two. The charter was drafted by Emily Bolton, founder of the Centre for Criminal Appeals together with Marika Henneberg, Dr Dennis Eady from Cardiff School of Law and the journalist Louise Shorter.
‘I have never been able to recover the full set of Omar’s papers,’ Amie, Benguit’s sister told the Justice Gap yesterday. ‘I have begged again and again to all Omar’s legal teams over the years but each one blamed the other I have paid a fortune on lawyers.’
Amie Benguit added that she was ‘disgusted’ about the way her family had been treated by lawyers. She reckons that two unqualified legal advisers the family instructed are currently in prison for fraud related offences – including Giovanni Di Stefano, the self-styled Devil advocate.
Jon Robins told the BBC’s Sally Taylor about ‘the weakness of the prosecution case and the self-evident problems with it: the fact that the main prosecution witness was a drug addicted prostitute. Omar Benguit was sent to prison on her evidence alone.’
Omar Benguit’s case has been championed by Marika Henneberg, a senior lecturer in criminal justice at Portsmouth University. ‘No one who looks at the case thinks Omar did it,’ said Henneberg told Jon Robins. ‘It is hard to understand how anyone ever could have thought that he was guilty.’
But then you have to see it in the context of a jury who did convict and who didn’t see all the information we see. I think the way the case was presented to the court meant that a lot of the information was hidden. The jury got one side of the story. Put simply, there is no evidence.
Amie Benguit described the events of the last few months as ‘overwhelming’. ‘I spent a year filming my story on my brother’s insane conviction for murder for a BBC documentary (Unsolved: The man with no Alibi) which resulted in witnesses retracting their statements,’ she said.
‘Then Jon Robins wrote a book on the crisis of our justice system and highlighted Omar’s case. Jon and I re-visited the scene of crime. We drove around the area with my brother’s co-accused. I wanted to Jon to see it for himself and to understand just how utterly improbable and bizarre the prosecution’s account of the supposed events of the early hours of 12th of July 2002 were.’
Amie Benguit paid tribute to Henneberg who together with her students ‘literally smashed the case into tiny pieces and put it back together again’. ‘I know how hard that has been working with just a couple of boxes of papers that did not even include court transcripts,’ she added.
The BBC’s Sally Taylor asked Jon Robins if the criminal Cases Review Commission, who referred the case in 2014, should send the case back to the Court of Appea. ‘I hope it will,’ he said. ‘But that raises another major problem with the system. The commission referred just 12 cases back to the Court of Appeal last year. There are about 87,000 prisoners in this country. Every year 1,500 people apply to the commission. Then there is another really big problem for Omar and those concerned about his case, in its 20 year history the commission has only ever sent two cases back to the Court of Appeal a second time. The odds are stacked massively against Omar Benguit.’
Extract from Guilty Until Proven Innocent
In our digital age, almost every human encounter with officialdom is captured, documented and filed away. An audit trail is left whether we want it or not. One exception is our legal system, which frequently deals with situations where the stakes could not be higher – where the need for accountability and transparency could not be more obvious.
No area of civil society churns out more papers than our courts. It is ironic, therefore, that there is very little paper evidence of the judicial decision-making that led to Omar Benguit losing his liberty. What we have now is down to Amie Benguit and the hard work of Marika Henneberg and the Portsmouth students. In the case of Omar Benguit, there are no transcripts of his three trials apart from the forty pages of the judge’s sentencing remarks in the 2005 trial.
This article was first published on May 11, 2018
Author: Calum McCrae
Calum is presently working at the California Innocence Project. He was previously an intern at the University of Greenwich’s Innocence Project London. He volunteers as a Justice Gap reporter