This is the story behind Cardiff Law School’s Innocence Project’s eighth submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
‘It was the late 1970s. I was a 15-year old Asian boy, who had arrived in the UK with poor English. Before I came to the UK I hadn’t been to school, so I couldn’t read or write in my own language either. Luckily (or not, as it turned out) my cousin took me under his wing. Although I didn’t yet know it, he was to be diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and went into a secure psychiatric unit. But not before he had changed my life forever.
My cousin had had problems with another group of Asian boys. Some like to call it a gang, of course, but that’s a label that is sometimes attached for convenience to make things look different to how they actually are when youths of the same culture hang around together. I had been involved in scuffles because I hung around with my cousin. Unknown to me, my cousin had been arrested for harassing one of their group, and had two knives confiscated. I had never had a knife.
One day, the other Asian group came looking for us. They had threatened us before and they were frightening. One of them punched me, so I hit him with a metal pole to defend myself, then I ran away. I didn’t see what happened next. Witnesses confirm that I had no knife and no contact with the man who died from stab wounds.
I was charged with murder – joint enterprise, with my cousin and someone else. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but help was at hand. My cousin’s brother was acting as interpreter for me. He sat in on my interviews as well as his brother’s, so he knew what we were both saying to the police about the charges we both faced. Oh, and as luck would have it, the kind solicitor acting for the other two accused with me was also going to represent me. In my police interviews I said, “please, I don’t understand”. I wasn’t offered a solicitor or interpreter for my first interview. I had an interpreter for my second interview, my cousin’s brother, but he didn’t really understand English either, so we all relied on someone from the solicitor’s firm to translate for all of us. My cousin’s brother was also there for me as “appropriate adult”.
When the police cautioned me, I didn’t know what this was about and my answer was “I tell the truth”, because I didn’t know what they meant. The police frightened me by rough handling me and calling me racist names. I had to sign all the documents they told me to and they wouldn’t let me see my parents until I had signed them.
I now understand that my defence was that I played a different role to my cousin, in this “joint enterprise”, and I had no foresight that something like this might happen. I had no idea my cousin had a knife, there was no plan to go out looking for trouble, the other gang started trouble and I defended myself with a bar, then ran away. I didn’t know then that my cousin had serious mental health issues.
Why was I charged with, and convicted of, murder rather than something I had actually done? All I did was defend myself using reasonable force, so I still don’t think I committed any crime. I was 15 at the time. Is this how the UK legal system works? Is it really fair?’
His story – not his words.
Fast forward almost 40 years.
That 15-year old is now in his early fifties. He was eventually released from prison on life licence in 1990, having always maintained his innocence alongside a complete lack of understanding for how he could have been charged with, let alone convicted of, murder in all these circumstances. He sought new legal advice. A young barrister became interested in his case so started to work on it, under legal aid initially, then pro bono when that ran out.
That barrister changed jobs to become an in-house barrister at a major national law firm in Cardiff, but still the case of the 15-year old bothered him. A colleague’s chance mention of our innocence project to that barrister led to us agreeing to help with the case.
Our students were troubled by the conviction that happened many years before they were born, and the lack of fairness as they saw it. They were seeing a combination of joint enterprise, mental health issues and the lack of due process in action at the same time.
The team, led by another of our amazing students Rhiannon Hughes, found a 2005 case that bore a striking resemblance to the interview/charging process endured by this client. They worked their way through the police interview tapes and considered how the doctrine of joint enterprise has evolved. After several meetings with the barrister, an extensive case was prepared for the CCRC. We are about to submit it, taking our total number of full case submissions to eight, an achievement of which we are very proud.
We cannot predict how the CCRC will view it: it will go through their normal processes. If it passes their initial sift, it is likely to be more than six months before it is allocated to a Case Review Manager to review, probably even longer because the client is out of prison so will not get priority. What we do know is that this client continues to suffer psychologically from the huge anxieties that resulted from his brutal exposure to the criminal justice system in this way, and the ongoing restrictions of living on a life licence.
Whatever the outcome of his application to the CCRC, it is doubtful that he will ever return to “normality”, damaged as he is by having spent the vast majority of his life in this turmoil.
What are our thoughts on the brink of our eighth major submission to the CCRC?
We inevitably reflect on timescales, and lament the lack of urgency that pervades the whole criminal appeals system. We wonder what might be the true number of potential miscarriages of justice, and how this will increase because of the dire legal aid situation.
The new Inside Justice website announces a horrifying statistic of 750 requests for assistance since July 2010. Ironically, that’s the exact date when we made six simultaneous submissions to the CCRC, the product of five years of work for six different people all alleging wrongful conviction, and all with persuasive cases (see HERE for the story).
But there’s another joint enterprise at work in our latest submission: the positive partnership between a group of university law students and a practising barrister. The barrister, who doesn’t want to be named, is one of those unsung heroes who beaver away behind the scenes to try to help vulnerable people who have nowhere to turn.
He introduced the case to us; we helped him with time-consuming research and tasks, to create what we think is an excellent model for partnership innocence project work. It has taken longer than we had hoped, but we have come to realise that this is inevitable where volunteers are involved.
Finally, we inevitably reflect again on the concept of joint enterprise, with its political sensitivities and recent media re-awakening assisted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report (see HERE). Perhaps 2014 will be a watershed year for joint enterprise awareness and long-overdue reform, kick-started by the tireless campaigning of grassroots organisation, Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association (JENGbA), and to be continued with JENGbA Patron Jimmy McGovern’s new BBC1 drama “Common”, which is due to be aired in coming months.
Sketch by Isobel Williams – check out her blog HERE