In the fourth story in this series I wrote about the experience of the husband of a woman I called Sharon who is adamant that he was unjustly convicted of a sex offence he allegedly committed over ten years earlier: there was no supporting evidence and the complainant did not attend court. Instead, she gave her evidence in a video interview.
Two days ago, after she had read this blog, “Sharon” wrote to me and drew my attention to the flood of messages about other people’s similar experiences after her story, in the form of an open letter to the former Prime Minister, had been published in Inside Time.
There were a number of features of these stories which were repeated again and again:
The unfairness of a justice system which sets one person’s word against another when there is no supporting evidence, and when the alleged offence(s) occurred so long ago that it is difficult for the accused person to say anything other than “I didn’t do it;”
A feeling that it is unfair that a complainant whose evidence is wholly unsupported can give her evidence through a video interview and not attend court at all;
The over-willingness of some police officers to limit their inquiries or to withhold evidence in their quest for a conviction;
The over-zealousness of some representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service in striving for a conviction to bolster their success rate;
A strongly held belief that the police coach the complainants before their evidence is video-recorded;
Concerns that complainants’ evidence was motivated by revenge, or by a desire for monetary compensation, or by fantasising so much about something that never happened that they believe it to be true;
A worry that not enough is done to provide safeguards for those who are accused by people who have suffered problems with their mental health.
The devastating consequences which a wrongful conviction has, not only on the imprisoned defendants but on many members of their families;
The frustration that people with money can afford able lawyers, expert witnesses, transcripts etc, which are outside the reach of those who do not have the money to pay for them;
A complementary lack of confidence in the competence and diligence of some defence lawyers who are retained at legal aid rates;
The shattering of people’s belief in the fairness of our justice system.
Here is a sample selection of 20 of these stories:
My partner is now in prison for a false, false allegation;
We, too, are a surviving family of a wrongful conviction – a historical case with no [supporting] evidence. Completely fabricated for revenge. This article details our turmoil perfectly.
This case echoes our case, and I am afraid many more.
I have been on the receiving end of the above. I ended up with a two-year sentence for something I actually hadn’t done. The CPS’s need to chase the conviction was horrifying. The ramifications on my family as with yours have been horrific.
We too have had our family ripped apart by false accusations. The jury didn’t know how the police coach the accusers on video many times to get them to say what they need them to, so that the police officers in charge get their promotion. The system can’t be fought unless you have the money to fight it with.
It’s not only historic cases. The accuser claimed to do things which were impossible to my poor son, to stop him attacking her. She apparently suffers from mental problems. We are still trying to pick up our lives although our son lost everything – his job and his home. Like the author, I brought up my family to respect the authorities. How wrong I was.
“Convict, convict, convict” is the mantra, and hide anything that might make this less likely. Attitudes do seem to be changing slightly, but this won’t help all those men whose lives are being changed forever by being locked up for things that simply didn’t happen. They will never be the same people again. Some prisons and the regimes in them are destroyers of humanity.
This rings so true. My husband was also wrongly convicted on false allegations, although more recent. Such similar experiences. Whole families are devastated by these crimes – because to falsely accuse someone is criminal.
This is happening to a member of my family now, his wife, children and grandchildren. A family torn apart because of the lies of one person. It has shattered my belief in British justice.
My husband was treated as guilty of crimes which apparently happened 20 years ago, which are completely unfounded. He was on bail for two years before coming to trial. His “victims” had had ample time and coaching to ensure he was convicted. It was simply a money-making enterprise for them. They have left an innocent man in jail and a family devastated.
I can relate to the writer’s experience. The same has happened to our family. We are devastated and totally let down by the whole justice system. Many families are traumatised – made ten times worse because they didn’t have the money, finance, resources to deal with appeals, solicitors, barristers, transcripts, expert witnesses etc etc – where can they turn?
The same has happened to my partner. He has served 18 months with another 2½ years to go. We thought our justice system was the best in the world: how wrong we were.
I am currently going through the same situation. Not only is the allegation untrue – we have to prove that it was physically impossible. How can we have a justice system that allows a court case to progress with one person’s word against another?
I too am dealing with the same situation. My husband is locked away for charges he was convicted of with no proof, no evidence, claimed to have taken place years and years ago. Our children are suffering incredibly over this. How am I to come up with evidence to prove his innocence for something that never occurred?
How many people can remember what they were doing on specific days over 10 years ago? What happened to “innocent until proved guilty?” I will never give up on my son or trying to find some way of proving his innocence.
My dad is now in [a named] prison for 15 years serving time for crimes he didn’t commit. The justice system is a disgrace, and my dad has tried to kill himself twice in there as he is finding it too hard. We come from a well [to do] background, and had a belief that only guilty people went to prison. How wrong we were.
I am in the same boat as everyone else. My son was sent to prison for six years for something he hadn’t done. Our lives have been ruined because of an evil person out for revenge.
Me and my family are living this nightmare. My husband is in prison. He has been given a sentence of 5 years for a crime that didn’t happen. The justice system isn’t fit for purpose. A wonderful grandfather has been stolen. Four grandchildren have lost their devoted granddad. Three children have lost their amazing dad, and I have lost my wonderful husband of 32 years who has done nothing but work hard and provide for his family all his life. Corroborative evidence matters.
I would not have believed how unjust the justice system is in these cases until I witnessed it for myself. My partner was convicted of historical crimes after his stepdaughter concocted a tale when she herself was convicted of child neglect. Her evidence was given as a video-tape of the interviews.
My husband was falsely accused by a single accuser from 40 odd years ago. Ten witnesses said her description of events was wrong, but the jury believed her and convicted him. He was acquitted when we found social services reports which proved she was wrong. How can they acquit him where we happen to find evidence from 40 years ago to prove she was a liar but then convict him on the others where paperwork was not available? It is not a fair trial!
Nobody could have spent 45 years in the justice system (as I did before I retired from the Bench ten years ago) without encountering cases where protestations of innocence are demonstrably ill-founded. And the vast majority of disputed cases are disposed of fairly, with no reasonable cause for complaint because of all the safeguards that are built into our system to prevent injustices. But there are a few features of what is going on today which should make everyone sit up and take notice:
25 years ago, when the Law Commission recommended the abolition of the common law rule that a warning must be given in cases concerned with sexual offences about the dangers of uncorroborated evidence, prosecution witnesses always had to attend court and be seen and assessed in person by the jury, and there were in those days very few historic sex offence cases brought to trial (often because of the absence of any corroborative evidence). The situation is quite different now;
The massive cuts in the financial resources available to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, coupled with the severe cuts in remuneration for legal aid defence lawyers led very experienced criminal lawyers to tell the Bach Commission earlier this year that every element in the criminal justice system was now broken. A trial concerned with serious crime is a very serious affair. It calls for well-trained and experienced police, well-trained and experienced prosecutors, and well-trained and experienced defence lawyers, and they must all possess the integrity that is needed to make the justice system operate justly. This does not always happen today;
In very recent years there has been a political climate in which there have been so many understandable worries that the justice system has failed to take the complaints of genuine victims of historic sexual abuse seriously that there has been unprecedented pressure on criminal justice agencies to increase the conviction rate in these cases.
However hard it seems, we should always remember what Lord Woolf said in one of these cases when he was Lord Chief Justice 13 years ago:
“We must do justice to the prosecution, whose task it is to see that the guilty are brought to justice. We must also do justice to the victim… If she is right she was treated in a most disgraceful way by someone she should have been entitled to trust… But we also have to do justice to the appellant. At the heart of our criminal justice system is the principle that while it is important that justice is done to the prosecution and justice is done to the victim, in the final analysis the fact remains that it is even more important that an injustice is not done to a defendant. It is central to the way we administer justice in this country that although it may mean that some guilty people go unpunished, it is more important that the innocent are not wrongly convicted.
In the end we have come to the conclusion that this is one of those residual cases where in the interests of justice we must set aside this conviction. That may be an injustice to the victim. It may be an injustice to the public in the sense that a guilty person is not going to suffer any further punishment than he has. But nonetheless, having regard to the lapse of time, the very limited evidence that was available in this case, we have come to the conclusion that it is our duty to allow this appeal.”
When I was a criminal judge 25 years ago, I regarded it as part of my duties to visit prisons and to witness for myself the conditions in which prisoners were held. I also read accounts of prison conditions whenever I could. The fate of someone convicted of a sexual offence has never been easy: they are usually segregated from other prisoners for their own safety.
Conditions seem to be even worse today, and inclusion on the sex offences register is an added stigma. This is why it seems that even more effort must be made to ensure that innocent men and women are not convicted of these crimes, even if, as Lord Woolf said, this may mean that some guilty people sometimes go unpunished.
Immediately after I posted this blog, a reader sent me this new story (No 21):
My husband is also in prison for false allegations from 45 years ago. His son and daughter put him there. He is a prisoner. Never done anything wrong in his life. We had bad representation. He did not stand a chance.
The system is very unfair. You don’t need evidence. They go by word of mouth. Anybody could do it. Just tell loads of lies and get away with it. They were very good actors!
He was sentenced to 20 years for something he has not done. He has already done two years.
We are trying to get an appeal but it is very hard. You have to have new evidence. How can you do that when it happened 45 years ago? It’s like a bad dream. Unbelievable!
I have also received this story (No 22), with accompanying comments:
There are now over 12,400 people in prison convicted of sexual offences, 15% of the total population and many in advancing years.
My husband is currently serving 10 years due to a single uncorroborated false accuser from 40 years ago. The accuser has a very challenging background with mental health issues, prostitution and drug abuse. My husband has worked all his life, never been in trouble for anything and is a good father and grandfather. Her recollection of events were disputed by a number of witnesses but the jury believed her. Even though she admitted she was abused by someone else but he had died before she could bring him to court, the jury obviously didn’t view her as a prolific liar.
The lure of compensation or revenge is extremely tempting and with the police now making it not only a very supportive ‘you will be believed’ ethos but also a reluctance of the police to prosecute for perverting the course of justice, this very much is a win win situation for the false accusers.
My husband who has been in prison 2 years, whilst acknowledging that not all are probably telling the truth, still believes that 1 in 3 in his prison for historic sexual offences are wrongly convicted. Even if you believe this is a gross exaggeration and agree 10% are wrongly convicted, this is still over a thousand men facing long sentences for something they didn’t do. My husband being first in the queue!
Inside Time is the monthly magazine for prisoners which is published under the auspices of the New Bridge Foundation.
 Andrew Green, one of the co-founders in 1993 of an organisation called INNOCENT, commented: “Similar cases are brought to INNOCENT with depressing regularity, and have been coming to us for years.”
 In my only case as a judge when I was really surprised by the verdict of one of my juries I reflected afterwards that I had warned them it was dangerous to convict on the uncorroborated evidence of the complainant, but that they were at liberty to convict if they were sure she was telling the truth. I was sure she was: they were not.
 R v Brian Selwyn B  EWCA Crim 319.