APPG on Miscarriages of Justice – on the trauma of the wrongly convicted

On 9 January 2019, the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice hosted a meeting at the House of Commons for a talk by Dr Laura Tilt from the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University, on her research into the experiences of the wrongly convicted, a subject on which there has been little empirical research to date. Barry Sheerman MP chaired the event, and after Dr Tilt’s talk, others spoke about their experiences of the system.

Dr Tilt explained that the narratives she examined were mainly gained from “death row” exonerees in the US. In addition, she had also examined files held by the Miscarriages of Justice Support Service (MJSS), which provided a snapshot of post-exoneration experiences covering a range of offences of which people had been wrongly convicted. Prior research in the UK had been conducted by a psychiatrist named Dr Adrian Grounds in 2008, who interviewed 40 individuals.

Dr Tilt said that a common thread in the great variety of experiences she surveyed was trauma. A wrongful conviction damages a person’s identity. Even if it is overturned, the stain remains. Victims experience a fragmented sense of self, and are ripped from their former roles and families. They are unable to go back to their old lives. Typical symptoms include an inability to move on, and enjoy their new-found innocence. Instead victims experience anger and, sometimes, mental illness. They either continue fighting or completely give up.

According to MJSS data:

– half of those whose convictions were quashed were homeless six months later;

– whilst under half were dependent on welfare benefits prior to conviction, 94% were welfare-dependent, post-quashing;

– 75% had been employed prior to conviction, but only a third found employment post-release;

– 61% were married or with a partner pre-conviction, but only 29% retained a significant other when their convictions were quashed.

The more fortunate were able to obtain some form of support, but the support for victims of wrongful convictions is limited. The MJSS provides some practical support such as making an initial referral to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and advice on accessing housing and benefits.

But the wrongly convicted are not officially recognised as a discrete group with specific needs. They are subsumed in a generic class of “ex-offenders”, and subject to all the prejudices that entails. This is an illustration of the “spoiled identity” that they endure. Nor are they seen as a priority group as far as mainstream mental health services are concerned.

As for the availability of compensation for wrongful conviction, that has been reduced almost to zero. To illustrate: in 2004-5, 39 out of 88 applications for compensation succeeded. In 2016-17, only one out of 51 applications succeeded.

I interject here to voice my personal opinion that this must only serve to increase the anger and bitterness of the wrongly convicted, when society has set the bar to redress so high as to make it effectively inaccessible in practice. That sends out a strong message that these victims are acceptable casualties in a system which is less designed to achieve justice than to pander to a destructive form of penal populism, aimed at putting as many people behind bars as possible, regardless of merit.

The explosion of scandals in the UK’s criminal justice system concerning (non)-disclosure in 2018, and the drastically diminished resources in that system, make it evident that the powers that be are not simply indifferent to injustice, but happy to promote it. That can only be described as wicked.

The next speaker was a former ICU nurse named Amanda Jenkinson. I must confess that I had not heard of her terrible ordeal before, and her account was chilling. She was suspended by Bassetlaw Hospital for allegedly tampering with life support equipment in January 1994. The police were called in and what followed was a full-blown witch-hunt, in which every single place where she had worked was investigated.

The investigation was one of the largest undertaken within the National Health Service. However, the police did not interview her until a year later.

She was charged with murder and three counts of GBH, and retained in custody. She described prison as “a jungle of depravity and desperation”: a terrifying world where drugs, bullying and harassment were the order of the day.

In 1996, she was tried on one count of murder and three of GBH. The prosecution claimed, bizarrely, that she had tampered with life support equipment to promote her own abilities and do down her colleagues. The judge threw out the murder charge.

Ms Jenkinson’s defence was that she was unpopular at work, and that she was not even at work when the alleged equipment tampering had occurred. The jury acquitted her of two charges of GBH but convicted her, by a majority, of one. The tabloids branded her the “Angel of Death No. 2” – No. 1 being the convicted serial killer, Beverley Allitt.

Ms Jenkinson was jailed for five years. Inevitably her regulator, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) struck her off. She then sued the Parole Board, which refused to release her after she refused to admit guilt.

In 2005, the Court of Criminal Appeals declared her conviction “unsafe” because of flaws in the CPS’ expert evidence, which was based on statistics (a re-run of the Sally Clarke fiasco, it seems). Her counsel described it as “fundamentally flawed, inaccurate and misleading”. Despite her successful appeal, she lost her NHS pension, and had to take the NMC to court to be reinstated on the register of nurses.

Ms Jenkinson, who at times became visibly distressed in giving her account, explained that both her solicitors and her expert acted pro bono. She called the MJSS “a lifeline”. She complained that “no one apologised”. The Nursing Standard was supportive, but all the old stories proclaiming her guilt are still on the Internet.

Her solicitor even had to speak to the police at the time of her appeal to ensure that they did not give a spiteful statement claiming “we are not looking for anyone else”, following the outcome of her appeal. She said that in her view, nothing could repair the damage that had been done to her.

Alison Lambert of the MJSS then spoke. She said that, in her view, things have got worse. In the last two years, no appellant has been permitted to attend the Royal Courts of Justice to hear their appeal in person. People released after their convictions are quashed are simply treated by housing services as a single person, not as a person with priority housing need.

She explained that the MJSS has a Facebook page, and that Dr Adrian Grounds is one of its trustees.

In the debate that followed, a Commissioner of the Criminal Cases Review Commission acknowledged the need for apologies from public bodies in miscarriage of justice cases, and said that victims of miscarriages of justice should be treated as a special category of priority need for housing purposes.

The new Head of Justice, the law reform charity, referred to the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on the Victor Nealon appeal, concerning redress for victims of miscarriages of justice. She called the present scheme “inadequate” and called the present state of affairs “abhorrent”.

Barry Sheerman closed the meeting by asking people to attend and support the upcoming APPG AGM on 5 February 2019.