Righteousness in a straitjacket: The Criminal Cases Review Commission

Posted on March 1, 2010

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Simon Hall has a tough time in prison. Separated from his wife and family, he is bullied by other inmates because he has been convicted of murdering a pensioner.

On 15 December 2001, Simon Hall went out on a night out in his hometown of Ipswich. The following July, he was arrested and charged with a murder he maintains to this day that he did not commit, that of 79-year-old Joan Albert, a friend of his mother’s. Seven years, seven months and three days later, he remains incarcerated.

Simon’s quest to prove his innocence has gained considerable support. Clothing fibres found in Joan Albert’s house were deemed ‘indistinguishable’ from those on Simon Hall. ‘Indistinguishable’ does not necessarily mean ‘identical’, and in any case, there is

nothing to suggest that the fibres were not from Simon’s mother, who was a regular visitor to Mrs Albert’s home. Footprints in the garden did not match Simon’s own shoes. The murderer’s mode of entry, smashing and entering through a small window, would have been a tall order for a man of his build. Discrepancies in times given by witnesses throw doubt on the suggestion that Simon had a “window of opportunity”. Few were convinced by the summing up of Judge Sandra Lean: “The more one finds the absence of evidence, the more confidently one can say that care was taken by the murderer”.

Simon Hall: imprisoned since July 2002

Simon’s case was eventually referred to the Court of Appeal in London, and a retrial will begin on 10 March. The body charged with deciding whether or not cases like Simon’s are worthy of a retrial was the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). In a statement, the CCRC said their decision was based on “fresh forensic analysis of fibre samples taken from the crime scene and other locations during the original police investigation”. This new evidence meant that there was “real possibility that the court would quash the murder conviction”, the basic test that the CCRC must apply to each of its cases. Yet, in spite of investigating the case for four years, the crucial evidence that led to the referral was not uncovered by the CCRC. Students at the University of Bristol’s Innocence Project, of which there are 25 around the country, had been investigating the Hall case since 2006. Research by the students, supervised by Dr Michael Naughton, managed to prove that the fibres crucial to Simon’s conviction were indeed ‘distinguishable’, thus raising the ‘real possibility’ that his conviction was unsafe.

The fact that the CCRC has seen their job done for them has added to growing criticism. It was set up in 1997, and since then, 12376 applications have been received, with 411 sent to the Court of Appeal, a rate of around 35 a year. 290 of these referrals, approximately 70%, have been quashed. Campbell Malone, Simon Hall’s lawyer, says victims of miscarriages of justice would be better served if the CCRC aimed for a higher referral rate, even if the success rate of those referrals were to fall. “Applicants experience the response of the CCRC to their applications as dismissive and hostile,” said Dr Andrew Green, of the campaigning group INNOCENT. He calls the commission’s investigations “office-based and inadequate”. Paul May, who campaigns for the release of North London man Sam Hallam, has accused the CCRC of working at a “glacial pace”. “It’s now nearly two years since we put in new evidence and to date they haven’t interviewed a single witness,” he said. The CCRC defends itself rigorously against the accusations. A spokesman said: “It is nonsense to suggest that the Commission is hostile or dismissive to applications – we exist to review allegations of miscarriage of justice. The Commission is sometimes accused of being too slow, but we are seldom accused of not being sufficiently thorough”.

Under-resourcing is at the core of the CCRC’s problems. Funding has fallen from £8.5m in 2004/05 to approximately £7m this year, while staff levels are also being cut. Each caseworker may have as many as fifty cases to review at one time. It is little wonder, then, that there have been issues over how long it takes to review one case. Paul May puts the level of funding to the CCRC is context.  “Policing on the first day of the G20 protest – additional policing – cost £8 million,” he said. “Any suggestion that the money isn’t available is fanciful.” In 2008, the Ministry of Justice, which funds the CCRC, spent £130m revamping its office space, including £170,000 on artwork. A spokesman for the CCRC said: “The Commission, like all bodies funded with taxpayers’ money, is contemplating difficult times ahead, but our casework performance has actually improved over the last few years and we will be making every attempt to maintain those improvement and if possible, to build on them in the future.” How it plans to do this with less funding and lower staff levels is unclear.

The CCRC is also constrained by the law. Naughton notes that even “if the CCRC turns up evidence that indicates an applicant’s innocence that was available at the original trial it may not constitute grounds for a referral”. The ‘real possibility’ test has caused huge frustration for those attempting to get cases examined by the commission. William Middleton, who worked to get Simon Hall’s case investigated, believes that fault does not lie with the CCRC, but instead thinks it works under serious constraints. In his view, enough is enough. He said: “I believe that for the organization to be any more effective than this change would make it, the real possibility legislation itself needs to be replaced with something that is not confined to the same legal principles which have already failed the same applicant in the past at least twice”. Middleton could be forgiven for harbouring ill-feeling towards the commission, yet he clearly sees fault in the law rather than the commission.

Even the CCRC admits that it has suffered problems. “Mr Hall’s application arrived at the Commission at time when there were long delays and the case waited two years before it was allocated to a case reviewer,” said the spokesman. “The situation is much improved since them and today such a case would be allocated for review within six months”. Yet clearly there are still unresolved issues. The implication seems to be that the commission is doing the best it can with the limitations imposed on it. Sam Hallam has been in prison since 2004 for the murder of Essayas Kassahun. He maintains that he wasn’t even present at the incident. Hallam’s case was received by the CCRC in February 2008, but only allocated to a case reviewer in September that year. It remains under investigation. “The more you find out, the more you think this could happen to any of us,” said Suzie Hinchcliffe, one of Hallam’s campaigners.

Simon married his partner, Stephanie, in prison in December 2008. As his trial date nears, he is optimistic about the future. “We are both working hard, so that we can be together and begin to live the rest of our lives as husband and wife should,” he says. His words are a strong warning of how important the job the CCRC is. “To this day I have maintained that I am innocent of this crime and many people believe that to be the case,” he says. “Yet here I sit, still in prison facing the everyday monotony of prison life, facing the piercing stares and abuse from cons higher up the prison hierarchy”. It is for Simon Hall, Sam Hallam and the many like them that continue to protest their innocence that the CCRC must do its job better, and be helped to do it.

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Posted in: Issues, Legal