The presumption of innocence is the cornerstone of our legal empire. However, a pioneering group of researchers are looking into those who were found guilty but were anything but.
Some years ago, I interviewed a man called Paddy Hill. That will probably mean nothing to you, but at the height of The Troubles, the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, he was a household name. Hill was equal parts infamous and celebrated, and that was because he was part of what was called the “Birmingham Six”. In 1974, at the height of the war, a bomb exploded in a café in Birmingham, England, killing nineteen people. The next day six random Irish people were picked up and quickly convicted to life in prison. After sixteen years in goal they were released, when it became clear they had been innocent scapegoats all along. When Paddy Hill was arrested, he was beaten up by the police, who told him that they knew he had nothing to do with the bombing. But, they said, “We’re looking for some guilty people, and why wouldn’t that be you?” Hill was a small-time crim at the time—a few break-ins, drunken in public—but this was far more serious. The day after the men were arrested, the IRA put out a statement, telling the powers-that-be that they had the wrong guys. Nobody was listening, and if it hadn’t been for a few courageous journalists and lawyers, Hill and the others would still be behind bars. He was never the same again. Sure, after a decade there was a little bit of compensation money. But he had lost his family, the continual beatings had left him physically broken, and at night he couldn’t sleep. He would call me, often, and just start a story halfway, talk for an hour or two, in the middle of the night or early morning, and then hang up.
I was reminded of Paddy Hill when I was watching 7.30 a few weeks ago. You’ve probably realised that ABC’s Exposed has dug itself into the case of Keli Lane, who is serving an 18-year sentence for killing her newborn baby. That has always been a complicated case, without a body and with a lot of circumstantial evidence. 7.30 revealed that there are also issues with police nondisclosure. Apparently, thousands of secretly-recorded intercepts have been withheld, and even the trial judge is now calling for a new investigation and maybe even a Royal Commission. The case of Keli Lane has been picked up by RMIT’s Innocence Initiative and, together with the Bridge of Hope Foundation, RMIT’s law students, guided by academics at the university, are re-investigating cases where the guilt of the convicted person is in serious doubt. Keli Lane is one of the beneficiaries of the project, but there are others. Boronika Hothnyang, who was convicted in 2011 of murdering her best friend by stabbing him in the chest with a kitchen knife; she is serving fourteen years, but the Innocence Initiative is doing its best to prove that she didn’t do it. They are doing the same for Khalid Baker, who is in jail for murdering a man who fell from a first-floor window at a party. Although somebody else has admitted he did it, and that Khalid had nothing to do with it, Khalid has not been released.
Apart from RMIT, there are three other Australian universities with similar missions. The Sydney Exoneration Project, Edith Cowan’s Criminal Justice Review Project and Griffith University’s Innocence Project. At all of them, law (and sometimes psychology and criminology) students review cases of possible wrongful convictions. Most of them also do research into why this happens and how to prevent it. Both Griffith and Edith Cowan are part of a much, much bigger international alliance called the Innocence Network. It started in the USA, of course, and now consists of 68 organisations from around the world. Together, they have exonerated 513 people who have spent a combined total of 7,794 years in prison. They have also found out a few disconcerting things about the judicial system, at least in the US. There, innocent black people convicted of murder spend nearly three years longer in prison before they are released than their white counterparts. 79% of exonerees arrested for crimes that occurred when they were minors are black. Innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. In the case of sexual assault: 3.5 times. Drug crimes: 12 times. Partly, this is because of eyewitness misidentification—in 41%, white people accuse the wrong black people of crimes. Sometimes racial bias inside the system is a problem as well. There are many, many cases of racially-tainted official misconduct inside the police and the judicial system. And often, people are convicted for crimes that never even happened. Of course, most wrongful convictions are never discovered.
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One of the cases highlighted by the Innocence Network is that of Corey Batchelor and Kevin Bailey. They were convicted of stabbing the wife of a retired police officer to death. Like Paddy Hill, they were random arrests. Both spent more than 28 years in prison, before DNA testing ordered by the Innocence Project cleared them. The arresting officer was later accused of torturing more than 120 people, obtaining false convictions that so far have cost the city of Chicago $100 million in reparations, legal fees and settlements. He only spent a few weeks in jail. Both Batchelor and Bailey are black. So is Richard Phillips, who is now in his seventies and finally free after 45 years in prison for a 1971 homicide he didn’t commit. The victim’s brother-in-law immediately confessed to the killing and ten years before Phillips was released there were other eyewitnesses who came forward. But nobody told Phillips or his lawyers, so it took decades—and the Innocence Clinic of the University of Michigan—to open the doors to the man’s cell.
Not only do people spend years behind bars while they are innocent, some get executed as well. Research has shown that the number in the US is 144 and counting, while Australia has at least one person and probably more who went to the gallows an innocent man or woman. In the UK, the latest figure is five. There, the Centre for Criminal Appeals is looking into a number of interesting cases of wrongful convictions. There is, for instance, Lizzi Donoghue, who is spending thirty years in prison for the murder of her husband. The Centre thinks there are serious problems with the “junk” forensic evidence and is doing all it can to prove that Lizzi is innocent. Then there is the strange case of the crew of the fishing vessel Galway Y Mor, who are behind bars for drug smuggling. The five men were convicted to a combined sentence of 104 years. After the Centre put its shoulder to the wheel, the case is now headed to the Court of Appeal, on the basis of the fresh information that it brought together. And it has been successful before, in the case of a man who spent five years in jail for a rape that didn’t even happen. According to the Centre’s research, this happens as often in the UK as it does in the USA. 64% of exonerated women and 21% of men were convicted in cases in which no crime had occurred. Worse still, more than 40% of female exonerees were wrongly convicted of harming their children. I don’t know what will happen with Keli Lane. I’ve got no idea if she is innocent or guilty. But with the RMIT Innocence Initiative on her side, we will learn in time whether she is to become part of that statistic as well.
For this story I have used the following sources: