Gerry Conlon, wrongly jailed for a 1975 IRA bombing in which he had no part, died on June 21 at the age of 60. The case of the Guildford Four remains one the most famous miscarriage of justice in Britain – but more and more cases of wrongful imprisonment are coming to light around the world.
On June 18, it was widely reported that Jonathan Fleming, who in April 2014 successfully overturned his conviction for the murder of Darryl Alston in 1989, had begun a lawsuit against the City of New York for the 25 years he spent wrongly incarcerated.
It is alleged that prosecutors knowingly manufactured a case against Fleming, even dropping criminal charges against a key prosecution witness in return for false identification evidence. Fleming was on a family holiday in Disneyland at the time of the murder. He is now suing the city of New York for $162m.
An incredible story, we might think, but one that is becoming increasingly commonplace. And the growing awareness of cases like this is now fostering a global social movement to help innocent victims of wrongful convictions.
Injustice goes global
In a recent case from the Netherlands that was overturned in November 2013, Andy Melaan and Nozai Thomas served eight and five years respectively for the murders of brothers Lisandro and Wendell Martis. Separate alibi evidence for the men that was presented at the appeal hearing proved that Thomas’s confession, obtained under extreme pressure from the police, could not have been true, with the public prosecutor conceding that there was no evidence at all that connected either him or Melaan to the crime.
In June 2012 in Japan, Govinda Mainali overturned his conviction for rape and murder after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment. New DNA evidence proved that semen and hair found at the crime scene were not his. His conviction was based on the false testimony of his former flatmate, who claimed he was illegally detained by the police for almost three months and often interrogated for ten hours a day until he broke and was forced to sign a statement.
In the UK, Victor Nealon overturned his conviction last December for an attempted rape outside a nightclub in Redditch, Worcestershire. He spent 17 years in prison before DNA evidence proved that he was not the perpetrator. Like Jonathan Fleming, he too was convicted on eyewitness identification evidence.
And in March of this year, José Guadalupe Macías Maldonado, who had been exonerated after serving 11 years in prison, soaked himself in petrol and set himself on fire in the Civic Center Plaza of Mexicali, Baja, Mexico. He committed suicide in protest after the financial support that he alleged the state government had promised him failed to materialise. Mr. Macías, convicted of murder in 2002, was convicted thanks to mistakes in the investigation conducted by the prosecution.
This apparently random smattering of cases just illustrates that wrongful convictions occur in legal systems in all parts of the world, and stem from the same sorts of causes. They are very much the tip of a worldwide iceberg of wrongful convictions.
They are testament to the universality of shoddy and corrupt policing, over-zealous prosecutors who put winning cases above fair trials for the accused, unreliable “expert” and forensic science evidence, witnesses who give false or mistaken evidence, and defence lawyers who fail to present evidence that might protect their clients from wrongful conviction.
As the case of the Guildford Four showed, proving wrongful conviction is often a matter of hard graft and dogged re-investigation of the facts. This is where the Innocence Network comes in.
To the rescue
The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organisations around the globe that provide pro bono legal services to convicted individuals who maintain their innocence, and which conduct investigations to reexamine their cases. The network currently has 63 member organisations, with 52 in the US and 11 in other countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, South Africa and the UK. Each organisation operates independently, but they all coordinate to share information and expertise.
In recent years, initiatives to assist alleged innocent victims of wrongful convictions have also sprung up in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Puerto Rico), eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic), Africa (Nigeria, The Gambia) and Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, Philippines, China). These organisations also report similar flaws and failings in their criminal justice systems, problems and practices that see innocent individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
My colleagues Thomas Osborne and Gregor McLennan have written in other contexts about why certain ideas have “legs”, and the notion of “critique-proof” concepts. Both are useful ways to look at the international social movement that is now emerging to assist alleged innocent victims of wrongful conviction all over the world. Even the staunchest of advocates for the criminal justice system would find it difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the idea that innocent victims of wrongful convictions should be assisted.
The argument for this challenge to the system is particularly strong when it invokes the broader societal consequences of wrongful conviction. The University of North Carolina’s Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues recently devised the term “wrongful liberty” to describe the situation where an innocent person is wrongfully convicted and imprisoned while the true perpetrator is left free to commit more crimes.
Citing data from the Innocence Project, Baumgartner et al’s research showed that of the first 300 individuals exonerated through DNA testing since 1992, 153 cases identified the true perpetrator. Of these, 130 perpetrators were later convicted of 139 additional violent crimes, which included 33 murders, 76 sexual assaults, and 30 other violent crimes – which would not have occurred had the perpetrators been convicted for their original crimes.
Beyond left and right
The concept of wrongful liberty is critique-proof. It is quite simply a winning argument that lends weight to the mantra of innocence efforts around the world: “When the innocent are wrongly convicted, the guilty remain at liberty with the potential to commit further crimes.”
Those concerned with the plight of the innocent languishing in prison are no longer being marginalised by the right-wing politics of “law and order”, which frame their concerns as distractions from the fight against crime.
The collateral damage of wrongful conviction is now not only about the innocent victims of wrongful convictions and imprisonment and their families: more and more, we see the damage done to the victims of additional crimes committed by true offenders benefiting from wrongful liberty while innocents serve their sentences for them.
This unites the “left” and “right” of the conventional political divide on criminal justice. It emboldens those who aim to protect all members of society, both from the harms of crime and of wrongful convictions, by ensuring that only the genuinely guilty are convicted. Only then will criminal justice systems truly deserve their title.