Justice Issues

Innocence or safety: Why the wrongly convicted are better served by safety

Critics of the Criminal Cases Review Commission claim it does not take enough interest in proving the innocence of those who say they have been wrongly convicted. Outgoing commissioner David Jessel argues that this misunderstands its role.

The place of innocence in the criminal justice system is obvious - of course it is central to the whole concept of justice. It’s not the only issue - most people, for instance, would not be too happy about a guilty person convicted on evidence produced by torture, perjury or forensic trickery - but to those of us involved in tackling miscarriages of justice cases the belief that people have been convicted for crimes they did not commit is the gold standard.

So why, out of some 300 cases where the court of appeal has quashed convictions sent to them by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), only twice have the judges sought fit to say that the appellants were innocent on only two occasions? Why do they use the dry and bloodless description of a conviction being simply “unsafe”? Again, why have they sometimes said that although a conviction is unsafe, and should be quashed, this does not mean the appellant is innocent – “far from it”, they added, in one particular judgment?

As a journalist, I believed that those convicted of the murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater were innocent. I still do. I was delighted when their convictions were quashed, but the court’s judgment left me, at the time, with a sour taste in my mouth. Lord Justice Roch, a judge at the appeal court, said: “this court is not concerned with guilt or innocence of the appellants, but only with the safety of their convictions.”

He continued: “This may, at first sight, appear an unsatisfactory state of affairs, until it is remembered that the integrity of the criminal process is the most important consideration for the courts which have to hear appeals against conviction.”

How could it be held that there was no concern for guilt or innocence?

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