Thursday, July 22, 2004

UK Miscarriages: Loss of innocence

Can anyone comprehend what it is like to spend years in prison for a crime you didn't commit? Eric Allison tracked down those still haunted by the experience - the victims of miscarriages of justice, and their families.

Wayne Darvell has serious problems. He is a vagrant, eking out an existence on the streets of Cardiff. He's a hopeless alcoholic who drinks whatever he can lay his hands on the moment he wakes up. He cuts a dirty, dishevelled figure; his hands and arms are covered in the scars of dozens of deep cuts, almost certainly self-inflicted, although Darvell - depending on his mood when you meet him - will give you a different story. Reality and fiction, for Darvell, are hard to separate.

Men like him would usually have a lot of contact with the police, but the law officers in Cardiff tend to leave him alone. Some would say this is because the police feel a collective guilt. Eighteen years ago, it was police evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of Darvell and his brother Paul for murder. The two spent the best part of a decade in prison, before the court of appeal overturned their convictions.

Announcing their decision, the judges said: "The catalogue of criticisms and exposures ... and the fresh supporting evidence constitute a formidable and overwhelming case for allowing these appeals ... This has been a thoroughly disquieting case and there remains serious matters for investigation and remedy." Unusually, they issued an apology to the defendants: "It is right that we should express deep regret on behalf of the court and of the public to the appellants for the ordeal they have undergone."

In hindsight, it is not hard to see that Darvell could easily fall victim to a "fit up". He was a disturbed, vulnerable lad who could have signed a fictitious confession placed before him with the minimum amount of threat or coercion.

Prison didn't help Darvell's state of mind, and when he eventually got his compensation, it didn't last long. Soon the money had gone, and all he had was the memory of the better class of alcohol and drugs that he'd lived on for a while.

His decline, following his prison ordeal, might have been avoided had he received some counselling, some form of preparation for the world outside. Financial advice on how to invest his cash might have helped. But the authorities did nothing.

Darvell's predicament is far from unique among victims of miscarriages of justice. According to Mojo (Miscarriages of Justice Organisation), Scotland, most of the individuals in the high-profile cases that have come back to the courts have suffered for their freedom. Some are prematurely dead, others are heroin addicts, after turning to that drug in prison. All the ones I have met say that their mental and physical condition now is a long way short of what they hoped it might be following the euphoria of the release they had sought for so long.

There is a mythology around what happens to those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice. The classic media image is of the newly-freed prisoner outside the court of appeal, punching the air in triumph, surrounded by jubilant supporters and a clutch of photographers. And there's the compensation, seemingly on the scale of a life-changing lottery win. The message is that wrongs have been put right, of the eventual triumph of justice.

The reality is different. In the words of Robert Brown, who spent 25 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit: "When I came out, I thought my fight for justice was over. I was wrong - it was just starting. And it was more than a fight, it was a war of attrition."

These innocent individuals are not unique. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was set up in 1997 following a series of appeals in which convictions for high-profile crimes were overturned. The CCRC has so far referred 235 cases to the appeal court; of these, 184 have been heard and 128 convictions overturned. In many of the successful appeals, the judges criticised the conduct of the original investigating police officers. Thus far, no officer has been convicted for misconduct in relation to those cases.

Brown and Patrick Hill have a lot in common. Both live in Glasgow, Brown's home town, and both are angry. They each served bitterly long prison sentences, made more difficult because, for many years, the powers-that-be almost certainly knew that they had locked up the wrong people.

Brown served some 25 years of his life sentence - wrongfully imposed in 1977, for the murder of a 51-year-old woman in Manchester. He was 19 when he went to jail and 44 on his release. Every day was a day's hard time. Brown, like Hill, refused to accept guilt for something he had not done.

Patrick, better known as Paddy Hill, was wrongly imprisoned for the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings that killed 21 people. His only crime was to have chosen to have a drink in a city-centre pub. Hill served 16 years, an ordeal exacerbated not only because he knew he was innocent but because his alleged crime triggered the anger of prisoners and prison officers. He lost count of the number of beatings he suffered at the hands of "screws".

At one stage of his life sentence, Hill was in Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight. For those who wanted to blot out reality, remedies were available. Hill's choice was home-made hooch. It got him into trouble with the staff, and one day, following yet another altercation, he was taken aside by a psychiatrist and told that the charges - trashing a cell and attacking prison officers - would be dropped if he pledged to give up the drink before it killed him. "The only reason I'm giving you this break, instead of sectioning you [under the Mental Health Act]," said the psychiatrist, "is because I know that you are innocent." That incident took place in 1977, two years after his conviction.

Astonishingly, the anger that pours from Hill is not directed at the police and the criminal justice system, but at what has not happened since his release. Despite undergoing ordeals that every expert in the field would agree was certain to damage the strongest of minds, neither Hill nor Brown has received a shred of support in the battle to regain control of their mind following their liberation. It is painfully clear to see - and both men would agree with this - that the battle is a long way from being won.

"I was a 19 year old boy when I went in, a boy who knew nothing of life; 25 years later they let me go. By then, the only thing they taught me was how to hate," says Brown. "When I walked out of the appeal court, I felt no sense of victory. I felt hollow and empty inside. I was sentenced all over again. Sentenced to go home and watch my mother die of cancer. My anger now is focused on the people who have raped me of any possible faith in justice."

Hill showed me a copy of a report, prepared in December 2001 by a consultant in forensic psychiatry. It describes the problems still faced by Hill, 10 years after his release: chronic tension, rage, anxiety, depressed mood, sleep impairment, tearfulness, irritability, episodes of explosive anger, distrust of others, panic attacks "characterised by feelings of subjective terror", sweating and hyperventilation.

Astonishingly, the report records how Hill sometimes wished he was back in jail: "When you're climbing Mount Everest your aim is to get to the top. Mount Everest is the court of appeal. And coming down is when you walk outside. When you come out it is all downhill ... all there is is a big void."

The consultant, who had previously assessed Hill in 1993, says in the report that after leaving prison Hill should have been provided with a programme of outpatient psychiatric support, a course of psychological treatment for tension and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and a course of family therapy. This would have ameliorated some - if not all - of his distress. Such help, says the report, was not provided.

Since May 2002, a Citizens Advice project, funded by the Home Office, has been piloted at the royal courts of justice to help victims of miscarriages of justice to resettle in the community.

But when I saw Hill and Brown recently, they said that what angers them most was the continuing institutional ignorance and denial in the criminal justice system. "People say the system has learned nothing from our cases," says Hill. "But it has- it's learned how to cover its tracks better. And that's the bitterest pill of all."

· Eric Allison is the Guardian's prisons correspondent.

John Kamara
Alleged offence: Murder
Sentenced: 1981
Freed: 2000

Very few men would have had a harder time inside than John Kamara who had a life sentence imposed on him for the murder of John Suffield, a Liverpool betting shop manager.

When he was finally freed by the court of appeal, on March 30 2000, Kamara had served almost 20 years, an astonishing 17 of them down "the block", the segregation unit for failing to conform to what he saw as unreasonable rules.

His pain-filled and burning eyes were witness to what was happening to him. Now, four years after being given his freedom, the eyes are somewhat softer, especially when he speaks of William, his two-year old son, born two years and a day after Kamara walked from the appeal court. Not that freedom has made the anger go far away.

"Do you know what they made me do after winning the appeal?," Kamara says. "They made me wait three hours, for a warrant from the prison governor. Freed by the second highest court in the land, yet kept waiting for a nod from a civil servant."

Still angry, he adds: "I can go into one [rage] when I don't get my own way." Other things, he says, show that his sufferings have taken their toll.

"Sometimes when I think back," he says, "I think that I was never in the nick, that it didn't happen, then at other times, I wish I was back, fighting."

Now living in London, with his partner expecting their second child, he goes back to Liverpool now and then, to see family.

"Then I can't wait to get away", he says "the memories come crowding back, the betting shop is just around the corner ... " he trails off.

At his trial, the police withheld 211 statements that would have been helpful to the defence. The victim's family are in touch with Kamara, the man's father - also called John - was the second person to greet Kamara upon his release. No prosecution of the police has followed. Nor has the freed man had a word of counselling, or regret from the system.

"A letter wouldn't have been too much to ask for, would it?" he asks.

Kamara plans to donate £150,000 of the compensation he awaits, to a project he intends to call Life after Life. It will go towards a house, a retreat, where the newly freed, wrongly convicted, will be able to receive the help that the authorities fail to give now.

Paddy Hill
Alleged offence: Murder
Sentenced: 1975
Freed: 1991

Paddy Hill was happy to show me these extracts from an assessment of him by psychiatric consultant Adrian Grounds in December 2001. While specifically about Hill, they illustrate some of the more universal problems borne by miscarriages of justice victims after their release:

"The most striking finding ... is that there has been no substantial improvement in Mr Hill's condition [since an assessment in 1993]. He continues to suffer from a chronic mood disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The changes in his personality and his estrangement from others remain, and he has not been able to sustain intimate and close relationships.

"The substantial damage done to Mr Hill's capacity to experience and maintain intimate relationships with others leaves him isolated, and this is likely to continue. In effect, he has lost the capacity to enjoy family life.

"Overall, Mr Hill's psychiatric difficulties are of the same severity as when I saw him nine years ago and it is likely that he will remain permanently disabled by them.

"At the time of his release, Mr Hill required the immediate availability of a safe location at which professional advice and help was available to him and his family about the difficulties they might face. He also needed long-term individual outpatient counselling and psychiatric support. Such help was not provided for him. If it had been provided, and accepted by Mr Hill, it is likely, in my view, that such help would have reduced his anxiety and depressive symptoms ... but the changes in Mr Hill's personality and outlook would not have substantially altered.

"It is likely that Mr Hill's cannabis intake helps him by reducing his subjective tension and anger. The intensity of tension and anger from which he suffers is extreme and is due to his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. His drug misuse can therefore be attributed predominantly to them.

"A major aspect of Mr Hill's chronic anger ... is the absence of any official apology for his wrongful imprisonment. In my experience, among those who have been wrongfully imprisoned the need to have an apology, and offical response of regret and acknowledgment that they were wronged, is of the greatest psychological importance. Commonly, they feel this to be more important than money, and the absence of such responses maintains intense bitterness."

Ann Whelan
Mother of Michael Hickey
Son's alleged offence: Murder
Sentenced: 1979
Freed: 1997

Ann Whelan was 34 when, in 1979, her 16-year-old son and only child, Michael Hickey, was wrongly convicted of the murder of Carl Bridgewater. Carl, 13, was shot dead the previous year in a remote farmhouse in Staffordshire, where he had gone to deliver an evening newspaper.

Hickey is, in her words, a "broken man" as a result of his ordeal. Since he was freed by the court of appeal in 1997, he has had 17 spells in a psychiatric clinic. Whelan's own experiences help to illustrate how miscarriages of justice affect not only those convicted, but their families too.

Whelan vigorously protested her son's innocence for almost 19 years, during which time she saw her son change from a healthy and lively teenager to someone for whom she could feel only "total despair".

Talking with Whelan, in the kitchen of her house near Birmingham, it is clear that the years of struggle have taken their toll. She says she is tired - not so much by the two decades of campaigning, more by the frustration of not knowing how to help him now that he is free.

"I cried and cried during the years that Michael was away, but I have cried more since he came home," she says.

The first time he was admitted to a clinic was particularly harrowing. "He was behaving so strangely [smashing up her home] that I feared for his safety. In despair, I phoned a lawyer who worked on Michael's case. He said the only possible way Michael could get the treatment he required was for me to phone the police and get him arrested [and then sectioned under the Mental Health Act]."

She pauses. "Can you begin to imagine how it felt to see the police arrive and take Michael into custody, with the images of the years I spent fighting to get him out of custody tearing into my mind?"

Her relationship with her son, she says, has been irrevocably damaged. They remain in contact, but there is a gulf, caused by his problems. Since the day that Hickey was freed, not one person from the within "the system" has spoken to Whelan. "I've not had one inquiry about how I'm coping," she says. "No advice or support, no social worker, nothing."

· John McManus, of Mojo (Miscarriages of Justice Organisation) Scotland, provided valuable help in the preparation of this article. Additional research by Homa Khaeeli and Hana Agil.

· A gallery of Adrian Clarke's portraits, part of an ongoing project entitled Framed: Images of Victims of Miscarriages of Justice, can be found at

Posted by Just Us posted 22 July 04


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