For the last four years, I have worked with Inside Justice, a charity that investigates potential cases of miscarriages of justice.
We are seeing a sharp increase of letters from prisoners convicted of historic sex abuses and protesting their innocence – and there is good reason to think this situation will only get worse. In recognition of the challenge these extremely serious cases represent, I wanted to find out more about a rare thing in the miscarriage of justice world: a success in overturning a conviction of a historic sex abuse case.
Chris Saltrese, a solicitor who has specialised in false abuse allegations for 18 years, points out some of the problems in making an appeal.
‘Convictions for abuse cases are mainly based on one thing: oral testimony of the victim… . In the absence of other supporting evidence like eyewitnesses or forensic evidence, it can be very difficult to get fresh evidence necessary for an appeal. Over the last 10 years, I imagine there have been several thousands of wrongful convictions. Since [notorious DJ Jimmy] Savile, it has gone off the scale.’
Prisoners who say they are innocent will often turn to a campaign group or an organisation like Inside Justice when they hit a legal brick wall. But as Louise Shorter, who runs Inside Justice, explains, these cases prove uniquely difficult for us too:
‘If a murder case comes into the unit it is usually rich with possibilities for new investigations, be they forensic or otherwise. With any sex offence case the paucity of evidence, the very thing most people will point to as a reason for believing in innocence, is our enemy. Scant evidence equals scant opportunities to test if the conviction is safe.’
To make sense of the current situation, it’s relevant to consider current practices in policing and prosecuting these sensitive cases.
The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer has said of people who contact the police claiming to be victims: ‘These complainants must be believed.’
‘We are now dealing with an unprecedented number of victims who are having the confidence and courage to come forward and report non-recent sexual abuse. I am predicting an 88% increase this year – the police service will investigate approximately 70,000 allegations of child abuse.’
So if overturning a wrongful conviction in this category of crime is so difficult, are there successes we can learn from? In America in 1984, John Stoll was found guilty of 17 counts of child molestation. Six children gave evidence to court that Stoll had molested them.
Alex Simpson was the associate director of the Innocence Project based at California University when they were contacted by John Stoll asking for help to appeal his conviction.
Alex was informed the victims in the Stoll case might be willing to talk to them. Despite the apparent willingness, Alex approached the victims with caution, aware of how difficult it can be. ‘How do you have that conversation?’ Alex explains. ‘Kids tend to be vulnerable, eager to please and pick up on the answer you want.’
In the course of the investigation, it appeared that the victims were coerced by law enforcement officials into making false allegations of abuse against Stoll when they were boys.
After 20 years in prison, John’s conviction was overturned and he adjusted to life as a free man.
Reflecting on the case, Alex said: ‘The thing that drove us with the Stoll case was that the whole thing was made up.’
In 2013, Inside Justice was contacted by a man accused by family members of having sexually abused them years earlier. We joined forces with a miscarriage of justice initiative at the University of East Anglia called justiceproject@uea to see if there were any grounds to believe what he’d been saying since the allegations first emerged: that he is completely innocent.
The judge allowed the testimony of each of the victims to be cross admissible, effectively allowing them to corroborate each other’s evidence.
In the course of a painstaking review of the evidence, court statements, police interviews – the unused material gathered by the police during their extensive investigation – justiceproject@uea uncovered a number of important issues.
The accounts of the abuse given in evidence at trial differed significantly when the victims re-told others a year later. They found evidence in the unused material of previous false allegations made by one of the victims. The jury was never given this important piece of information before deciding whose testimony to believe. Finally it was established that an element of one of the victim’s account of the abuse was patently untrue.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the organisation which investigates cases and has the power to refer to the Court of Appeal, has accepted the case submission and will begin a full review in January 2016.
Steve Heaton, the leader of justiceproject@uea says: ‘This case was enormously tough for students, the odds are stacked against us in making an appeal. After months of work, we believe we have presented some compelling reasons to cast doubts on this conviction.’
There are current concerns about the investigation of forensic elements of sex offences. Recently, the Forensic Science Regulator announced a review of poor forensic practice in sex abuse cases.
The review focus is on sex abuse cases because they are complex and often not well resourced. £20 million cuts in funding for forensic examination have added to concerns about criminal justice being compromised. These concerns translate to historic abuse investigations.
They can’t all be making it up
The recent BBC Panorama film, The VIP Paedophile Ring: What’s the truth? raised questions about victims’ testimony being largely uncorroborated.
Peter Spindler is a former police commander who investigated the victims’ claims of abuse by Savile. Talking about victims coming forward, Spindler told Panorama: ‘The thousands of people who have come forward… cannot all be making it up.’
With his years of experience representing people charged with historic abuse crimes Chris Saltrese sees things from a different perspective: ‘There have been hundreds of convictions [of historic sex abuse], they can’t all be guilty.’