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Cardiff Five: Innocent Beyond Any Doubt

REVIEW: The Cardiff Five tells the story of a miscarriage of justice in which five innocent men were arrested, charged and initially held in prison for the murder of Lynette White in Cardiff in 1988. Three of the men were subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, serving several years in prison before being released on appeal in 1992. Potentially a complex story, the book is written in an engaging non-technical style which draws the reader into the story.  The author effectively illustrates how miscarriages of justice arise from a series of small mistakes and how the conviction of criminal justice agencies that they have the right person can influence investigation, prosecution and the whole machinery of criminal justice; even where a suspect is innocent.

  • The Cardiff Five: Innocent Beyond Any Doubt is written by Satish Sekar and published by Waterside Press.
  • Dr. Angus Nurse is lecturer in criminology and a research member of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.  He was formerly research fellow at Lincoln Law School and an Investigator for the Commission for Local Administration for England (the Local Government Ombudsman).  He has worked in and written on investigations, legal compliance and environmental issues. His new book Animal Harm: Perspectives on Why People Harm and Kill Animals has just been published by Ashgate.

In his foreword to Wrongly Accused, last year’s Justice Gap publication on miscarriages of justice, Mr. Justice Sweeney said: ‘Our system of criminal justice is not perfect. Despite all its safeguards and the strivings of the vast majority of those of us who are involved in its conduct, a risk of miscarriages remains.’

A vital contribution
Where such miscarriages occur, it is important not only to identify that they have occurred, but that society can uncover why they occurred and learn lessons to minimise any future occurrence. In this regard, The Cardiff Five’s detailed analysis of the Lynette White case and the wider miscarriage of justice issues that occurred in South Wales at the time is a vital contribution to our knowledge of miscarriages of justice.

Readers unfamiliar with the events of the Cardiff Five case (perhaps best known as the Cardiff Three) may have difficulty following parts of the story. If there is a criticism to be made of the book it lies in the lack of a linear narrative of the facts of Lynette White’s murder, the subsequent uncovering of the flaws which made up the miscarriage of justice and the process of appeals, review and other investigations that resulted in the eventual conviction of the real killer. The author moves backwards and forwards through the events of the story in a manner that some readers unfamiliar with the case might find confusing. However, this element of the author’s style is actually one of the book’s strengths as despite the initial frustration of having to flick backwards and forwards through pages to note certain facts, it quickly becomes clear that what Satish Sekar achieves is not solely to write a book about the Lynette White case but to construct a larger narrative about wide-ranging miscarriage of justice issues (police malpractice, prosecutorial failings etc) using the Cardiff Five case as a framing device through which larger issues can be explored.  This book could benefit from a clear timeline of the Lynette White murder case, the subsequent reviews and inquiries and the events leading to the acquittals or, alternatively, an introductory chapter setting out the basic facts as a way of framing the rest of the book’s discussion of the case and its implications.  But it should be noted that the author has previously written about the case (Fitted In, 1998) so that some readers will come to the book with knowledge of the basic facts. In any case piecing together the events and their significance as Satish constructs his narrative is integral to understanding The Cardiff Five.

The author also inserts himself into the story. While in the hands of a lesser writer this would be distracting, here it proves to be an extremely effective technique.  The reality is that miscarriages of justice are seldom uncovered by the criminal justice system which is primarily geared towards establishing guilt rather than uncovering truth. Instead, it is often down to defence lawyers, campaign groups and investigative journalists not only to identify but also to investigate miscarriages of justice and to find the evidence that casts doubt on a conviction, if not actually proving innocence.  The author’s role in uncovering the miscarriages of justice is alluded to in several sections of the book (for example noting that in 1999 he started the calls for a public inquiry into practices in South Wales). This is an important part of the story given that criminal justice professionals are often unwilling to accept that errors could have been made and to allocate resources to uncovering them where they do occur.  Even where this does happen, external reviewers not immersed in procedural issues may spot things that those embedded in the day-to-day workings of criminal justice and policing may not.

False confessions
Central to the case is the issue of false confessions and the failure to acknowledge the innocence of the suspects. In a 2010 law research paper for the University of San Francisco, researchers Richard Leo and Steven Drizin identify false confessions as a significant cause of miscarriages of justice. They also identified that false confessors whose cases are not dismissed before trial are often convicted despite their innocence, and that once innocent individuals have been misclassified as guilty by police; the conduct of the criminal justice system is entirely based around proving that guilt beginning with a guilt-presumptive, accusatory interrogation.  In the US evidence considered by Leo and Drizin, this regularly involved lies about evidence and often repeated use of implicit and/or explicit promises and threats as well. Once a false admission is obtained, pressure is often placed on the suspect to provide a post-admission narrative jointly shaped with investigators who often supply the innocent suspect with the (public and non-public) facts of the crime which further shapes their guilt.

Their conclusion was not that police who have identified a viable, plausible subject automatically and deliberately seek solely to prove guilt and ignore all other lines of enquiry (although past writers have drawn that conclusion). Instead, they identify that poorly trained but confident police investigators misclassify some innocent individuals as guilty and that once this has occurred they continue to conduct investigations in a manner that constructs a narrative that establishes the innocent person’s guilt on the basis of an unwavering (yet mistaken) presumption of guilt.  This is then transferred onto prosecutors and judges and results in the conviction of the innocent.

Although such practices are not likely to be widespread in the UK, The Cardiff Five tells just such a story of the three sequential errors that Leo and Drizin identified – misclassification, coercion and contamination. Once misclassified as guilty a hostile and intimidating approach was taken to the suspects which in one case was described by Michael Mansfield QC as bullying a suspect with ‘hectoring and demeaning questions until his insistent denials of involvement were worn down to submissive “confessions”’(coercion). Prosecution witnesses had also been complicit in constructing a guilty narrative, were eventually charged with perjury and in their 2008 trial claimed they had been harassed into lying by the police.

The judge accepted that they had been bullied, threatened, abused and manipulated by the police into agreeing to a ‘contaminated’ account of events entirely constructed around the mistaken presumption of guilt.

Last year, Wrongly Accused raised the question: ‘Who is responsible for investigating miscarriages of justice?’ The reality is that often it is only through the efforts of champions of the innocent, investigative journalists like Satish Sekar, and through books like The Cardiff Five that the true nature of miscarriages of justice and its impact is understood. 

In his foreword to The Cardiff Five, Michael Mansfield QC called it ‘one of the most important books ever written about criminal justice’.  Despite a few minor quibbles and a style that might take a little getting used to, everybody interested in miscarriages of justice should have a copy of this book on their shelf.

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