‘I thought it was a beacon of light which would ensure those wrongly convicted got justice.’
Susan May talking about the Criminal Cases Review Commission earlier this year.
Despite the profile of a case like Susan May and increasing evidence supporting her innocence (see below), the 67-year old finds herself without a lawyer. Her freedom, as she sees it, rests in the hands of a beleaguered CCRC referring her case back to the court of appeal for a third time.
‘Wrongly Accused’ debate in Manchester
Following the JusticeGap’s Wrongly Accused debate at College of London in Store Street, London in April, we are running a second debate in Manchester. We are organising it with the barristers’ chambers Garden Court North. The details are as follows.
WHERE: BPP Law School, 1st Floor, St James’s Building, 79 Oxford Street, Manchester M1 6FQ
WHEN: June 27th, 2012, 6pm to 730pm
WHAT: The launch for Wrongly accused: Who is responsible for investigating miscarriages of justice?, part of the JusticeGap series (and published by the Solicitors Journal). You can download it HERE.
The event is being organized with the barristers’ chambers Garden Court North.
Pete Weatherby QC, Garden Court North, will chair a discussion with:
- Eric Allison, the Guardian’s prison correspondent;
- David Jessel, investigative journalist (Rough Justice, Trial & Error) and former commissioner at the CCRC;
- Campbell Malone, defence lawyer who specialises in miscarriages of justice and chair of the Criminal Appeal Lawyers Association. Campbell was acclaimed for his role in the overturning of Stefan Kiszko’s life-sentence for murder, 17 years after his imprisonment for a crime it was later proven he could not have committed;
- Robert Lizar, founder of Robert Lizar solicitors based in Moss Side, Manchester in 1978. Robert has a reputation for dealing with human rights and miscarriage of justice cases such as Robert Brown, freed when his conviction was quashed in 2002 after serving 25 years in prison; and
- Eamonn O’Neill, award-winning investigative journalist, lecturer in journalism and programme director of the MSc of investigative journalism at the University of Strathclyde. Eamonn worked for eleven years to help secure the release of unjustly imprisoned Robert Brown.
TICKETS ARE FREE BUT SEATS ARE LIMITED: If you want to come please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org (max 2 seats per person). The event is likely to be oversubscribed. If you claim tickets but subsequently can’t make it, PLEASE let us know.
Back in the queue…
The CCRC was established some 15 years ago in the wake of judicial scandals such as Birmingham Six and Guildford Four. When the Commission was set up, Susan May was in Durham prison where she spent seven years of a 12-year sentence. She is thought to have been the first lifer to protest their innocence throughout a sentence to be released on her tariff date. May claims to have been told repeatedly by parole officers, psychologists and prison staff that unless she admitted her guilt, she would never leave.
- Susan May addressed the recent Innocence Network UK (INUK) symposium which called for urgent reform of the reform of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
There was another breakthrough in the Susan May case when the Guardian last month revealed how Greater Manchester police failed to follow up a ‘good suspect’ – a heroin addict with convictions for burgling the homes of elderly people who died in 2001 in a drug-related dispute. The paper also uncovered claims that police tried to persuade a witness to lie, apparently to eliminate other inquiry leads which would have distracted from the case that they were building against May. You can read more HERE.
Campaigners for May say police seem to have instinctively believed she committed the crime – despite a lack of motive and a dearth of evidence to prove she beat her aunt around the face and suffocated her with her own pillow. May was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence, the campaigners say, comprising mainly three marks, said to be her fingerprints, that allegedly contained her aunt’s blood. Fresh doubts have emerged in recent years about the testing method, about whether the marks are May’s fingerprints – and even whether they contained human blood.
‘Once the CCRC rejects you, you are on your own again,’ comments Susan May; adding that she is fortunate enough to be supported by people who are willing to take on her case pro bono notably Dorothy Cooksey and her brother Geoff Goodwin, a former builder and lay preacher at the church down the road who she calls her ‘Mr Forensics’, as well as Guardian prison correspondent Eric Allinson.
May’s case has twice been rejected by the court of appeal and last year the CCRC refused to refer the case for a third time. However May adds: ‘They have allowed me to leave my dossier as a fresh submission – but then you’re back in the queue and it remains to be seen whether it goes any further.’
Every year about 1,000 new applications are made to the CCRC, mainly from prisoners claiming to be serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. You can read David Jessel on a 50% increase in applications this year HERE.
‘The reality is that without a lawyer – and without a good lawyer – she will not get back to the Court of Appeal. It’s as simple as that,’ comments Eric Allison; adding that they might be able to persuade a lawyer to work pro bono ‘but he then has to find experts who will do it pro bono as well. That is always a problem. All the evidence is there it just needs more disclosure.’
So what does Susan May make of the CCRC? ‘I think that it was brilliant in its first three years but I think somebody sat on it around about 2000. Its remit just changed,’ she replies. ‘They almost seem to run scared of referring cases to the Court of Appeal. But you have to pin your hopes on them because that is all you have.’
‘People always ask me why I can’t leave it alone but when it’s something is so important you can’t. I don’t just do it for myself, I am doing it for my auntie too.’
‘They certainly aren’t doing what it says on the tin,’ Eric Allison says of the CCRC. ‘What they don’t do is investigate cases. Why should Susan have to find money for forensic experts when there is clearly something wrong with forensic evidence presented at trial? That is now clear to any neutral observer. When they started they started off very well with the best of intentions. Like many public institutions they become embedded in the system. They have become the gatekeepers for the Court of Appeal and that is not what they are there for.’
The journalist acknowledges that what whilst the latest developments (as reported in the Guardian) are ‘a good story’, they won’t clear May’s name. ‘What will clear her name is “blood and fingerprints”,’ he says. The significance about the latest developments is that they would have given the original jury ‘an alternative narrative to Susan murdering her aunt; but they had no alternative. The jury was not presented with the option: Susan May or somebody else. It was Susan May or nobody.’
A theme of Wrongly Accused was the media’s role in investigating miscarriages of justice? ‘There is no money in pursuing miscarriages. There really isn’t. Whatever I get paid, it would not represent one 50th of the work I put in. I’m not complaining. I’m saying that as a matter of fact,’ says Allison. ‘I believe in Susan 100%. She is innocent. She no more killed her aunt than I killed President Kennedy. If the Guardian did not pay me a penny I would carry on doing it.’
Jon is editor of www.thejusticegap.com. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009 – with Steve Hynes) and People Power: how to run a campaign (Daily Telegraph and LawPack, 2008). Jon is a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and a patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He won the Bar Council's legal reporting award in 2015 and previously in 2005.