Written by: Russell Webster
When deception is the better part of valour
Earlier this month the BBC screened a three-part drama series, Public Enemies. It starred Anna Friel as Paula, a probation officer supervising Daniel Mays’ Eddie, a released murderer, and focused on the relationship between them. Within a couple of weeks of his release, Eddie was proclaiming his innocence of the murder of his 19-year-old girlfriend, ten years’ earlier. Should Paula believe him and help him overturn his conviction or get him recalled to prison on the grounds that he was denying his offence and presented a danger to the public?
The critics loved it – particularly the performance by Daniel Mays. Probation staff were delighted at a rare prime-time portrayal of their work, but dismayed at the unprofessional way the supervisory relationship was depicted. For me, however, the real interest came from thinking about what I would do if I was unjustly accused and convicted of a serious crime.
This is a real problem for an unknowable number of people every year. In the year from October 2010- September 2011, the Court of Appeal Criminal Division allowed 213 of the 535 appeals against conviction. A hit rate of 40% – although of course, appellants must first be granted leave to appeal.
In the UK, three individuals (Timothy Evans, Mahmoud Hussein Mattan and Derek Bentley) have all been posthumously exonerated of the murders for which they were executed. In the US 139 prisoners who were either on death row or had actually been executed have had their convictions overturned since 1973.
Although it is, of course, impossible to say how many people are wrongly convicted of serious offences every year, the numbers may be considerable. Dr Michael Naughton, founder and director of the Innocence Network UK, went on record before Christmas to criticise the Criminal Cases Review Commission which has referred for retrial just 395 of the 13,282 cases it has completed (3%) since its launch in 1997.
But back to our central dilemma: Dangerous offenders with indeterminate sentences (either life or IPP) will not be judged suitable for release by the Parole Board until their level of risk of doing harm to the general public is considered low. Gary Dobson and David Norris, the two individuals convicted of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence were both sentenced to be ‘detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’– the equivalent of a life sentence for juveniles, since they were aged under 18 years at the time of the attack. If they do not acknowledge their guilt, they will not be eligible to participate in the offending behaviour programmes which are a prerequisite to demonstrating a change of attitude and behaviour which can make release a possibility. In this case, of course, probably a great majority of the British public will not care if they are never released.
So, if you or I had been wrongly convicted of a serious crime with our release from prison dependent on us being assessed as low risk, our choices are pretty limited:
Bravely cling to our principles, proclaim our innocence at every opportunity and spend the rest of our life inside.
Renounce our innocence, develop a convincing fictional account of the crime we were convicted of, work out what set of factors contributed to our offence which we could now address in a sufficiently convincing manner to assure experienced prison and probation staff over a period of several years.
Not much of a choice, is it?
Interestingly, in Public Enemies, Anna Friel finally comes to believe in Daniel Mays’ innocence after she visits a prisoner who had convinced her that he was low risk and went on to commit a further murder. In a prison interview (which could only have taken place within the bounds of artistic licence), the con tells his old PO that he had allayed her concerns by telling her ‘exactly what she wanted to hear’.
This leaves our fictional selves in a Catch 22 situation of which Joseph Heller might have been proud – let alone BBC dramatists. In order to secure our release, we would have to develop the skills of deception of a career criminal.