Diary of UK Innocence Project 6: Not expecting the unexpected – Julie Price

This blog first appeared on thejusticegap.com

We have just received news that has come as a shock, but for the right reasons.

After eight years of the hard slog of casework, with one setback after another, frustration followed by exasperation, there is welcome news – a first for Cardiff Law School Innocence Project.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is to refer one of our cases to the Court of Appeal because there is a ‘real possibility’ that the conviction may be unsafe. The CCRC’s press release is here and the case is that of Dwaine George.

This is new territory for us.  It is a time for constructive reflection rather than celebration. First and foremost, this is real life and real death. A young person was killed.

That victim’s family saw someone convicted and they are now faced with the news that the conviction is under the spotlight again, 12 years after the event. Conscious of the sensitivity of this situation, our motivation is that a genuine wrongful conviction means that the real perpetrator may still be walking our streets.

Dwaine’s case originally came to us in 2006 from Bristol University’s Innocence Network UK (INUK), when Cardiff was a member.  He was convicted of murder in 2002, aged 19, and has always protested his innocence.

Within the last few weeks he has been released from prison on life licence, having served his tariff term. Dwaine undertook various educational courses in prison, resulting in a First Class university degree.

His response to the news from the CCRC is: ‘ I have said from day one that it wasn’t me.  I know there are still huge hurdles ahead, but I want to prove my innocence. I just want a chance to get justice, and I want to thank Cardiff’s innocence project students for the work they have done that will hopefully give me that opportunity.’

Dwaine’s case was one of our six ‘Cardiff Casewatch’ cases, which we submitted simultaneously to the CCRC in July 2010. To give a flavour of timescales, we worked on it for almost four years, then it was with the CCRC for a further three.

It is not appropriate to discuss here the detail of why the CCRC is referring the case, but our students are pleased that their research provided a solid foundation.

Mindful that effective innocence project work involves collaborative effort, we sought offers of pro bono assistance. An early port of call was Mark Godsey who runs the Ohio Innocence Project, and who had visited Cardiff in 2006.

He put us in touch with Michele Nethercott at the University of Baltimore, who then introduced us to Dennis McGuire, a US-based gunshot residue expert. His generous initial guidance provided a valuable foundation on which our students based their technical submissions.

Among others, closer to home we benefited from the ear witness expertise of Peter French, an honorary Professor at York University, and general help from Cardiff solicitor Andrew Shanahan, all with no expectation of reciprocity. The result was our students, with guidance, presenting enough to persuade the CCRC that our lines of investigation should be followed up.

‘To be fair to the CCRC’ is arguably a phrase not commonly heard in some quarters, but the case review manager in Dwaine’s case went out of his way to ensure that we received relevant copies of Forensic Science Service files as we requested to assist our pro bono expert.

Three huge lever arch files had to be copied and transferred securely to us. We have previously aired our concerns, not only about the length of time that the CCRC process takes, but also about the failure of ‘the system’ generally to ensure the correction of injustices.

This referral does not alter our view on that, and our plans are to further engage with the CCRC about issues we have experienced directly from our casework. We recognise that funding is major issue for the CCRC, and that has an adverse impact upon timescales.

Our various Team Dwaine students (curiously, predominantly female) from 2006 onwards have now graduated and left us. However, bitten by the innocence bug, some seek progress reports on ‘their’ case, and have given me permission to report where they are now.  Team leader Sarah Magill was determined to work as a criminal lawyer and relished police station representative exposure. Her perseverance paid off, a rare training contract ensued, and she will qualify as a solicitor in 2015 into her chosen area of work if indeed there are any criminal firms still left.  Caitlin and Alanna were elected by their peers as Innocence Officers on our Student Law Society. After three years working as a paralegal, Caitlin has just had two training contract offers to start in 2014, so will qualify in 2016. Alanna found a training contract as an undergraduate and will qualify next year.

Rhiannon became our gunshot residue student, comparing the evidence in Dwaine’s case to the case of Barry George (no relation). She is still working towards qualifying.

One Lisa-Marie started as a legal secretary and was promoted to trainee solicitor. The other Lisa-Marie worked in law firms, but has returned for a Master’s degree, still aiming for a career in law. I can’t list all the students who worked on Dwaine’s case; there were many, including Mel, Lucy, and Hannah who readily called to arms her family forensic science contacts.

It is a pleasing testament to their dedication that they remain committed to legal careers, given how difficult it is to secure a job to train as a solicitor or barrister. Without exception, they would say that their exposure to innocence project casework has positively contributed to their employability. But perhaps more importantly it has given them a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice, whatever their ultimate career.

Now, here’s an ironic thought. Which is quicker: converting a new law student into a qualified solicitor, or progressing a case through the criminal appeals process?

Historically, it took law students six years to qualify. The current climate with its increasing trend towards paralegal recruitment has resulted in two or more years being added to that before the luckier students may secure that elusive training contract. Eight to ten years might arguably be a more accurate timescale from outset to qualification. Still, criminal appellants are generally far less fortunate as regards years needed to negotiate our problematic appeals process. Ten or more years is common. That is not acceptable.

What happens now following Dwaine’s referral? We expect soon to receive the CCRC’s Statement of Reasons. Dwaine will visit Cardiff to meet our current students. Legal representation has to be discussed; the appeal hearing is at least six months away. A steep learning curve beckons. We are under no illusions as to the mountainous hurdles that still remain, but we are progressing positively.

We aren’t the first university to be in this position, of course. Bristol has twice experienced this, but those convictions were upheld. Lancaster also had a conviction upheld at the appeal court, not via the CCRC route.

Cautiously optimistic realism has to be the order of the day for Dwaine and for us. Above all, we hope that this will give a welcome boost to the morale of UK innocence projects at this time of crossroads and brick walls.