In December 1999, I took a two week vacation at the Court of Appeal. Appeals were taken a little more seriously in those days – two full weeks of argument then was a far cry from the tendency today to dismiss matters in a few hours, preferably with the prisoner only ‘present’ on a video link. The ‘Cardiff Newsagent Three‘ Appeal was a strange ‘holiday’; fortunately it had the best ending of all holidays – freedom and justice for Mike, Ellis and Darren.
For two weeks, the Crown and their barrister Gerard Elias QC did all in their power, dragging up every conceivable argument and some inconceivable ones as well, in order to keep three innocent men in prison. The three had been released on bail a year earlier pending the appeal, and the thought of them being taken back into custody at the end of a failed appeal was a horror that haunted every moment.
I had invested five years campaigning for the Newsagent Three. I realise now that this was not long in miscarriage of justice terms, but nonetheless it was an emotional investment and the stress I personally felt over those two weeks would have been almost unbearable were it not for the presence of so many great people who supported the case in various capacities.
But hold on: it was not my freedom that was at stake; not me who was being labelled with malicious lies and injustice. What could Mike, Ellis and Darren be going through? How were they dealing with the stress? It occurred to me that I didn’t have their strength of character; that in their position I could understand why someone might give up; how sometimes fighting the intransigent powers of the prosecution was so stressful and frustrating that it might even be easier to throw the towel in and give up the fight, even if the truth was lost on the way.
Simon Hall’s confession has brought these thoughts back into focus for me. I am not saying that his confession is false, but I am saying that if it is I can just begin to understand why he may have made it. I am not suggesting that I can begin to imagine what miscarriage of justice victims really go through: the sense of injustice, the loss of freedom and life, the pressure from psychology and offender management personnel to admit guilt. We know that extreme psychological pressure can produce false confessions and even false memories.
We know also that people who have been damaged psychologically and emotionally can self destruct and they sometimes do this just at the time things are beginning to look more hopeful for them. We know of the difficulties victims of injustice face even (some say even more so) when and if they are finally cleared – the high rates of psychological problems, drink and drug abuse and the shocking number of early deaths. Most people with serious illnesses or disabilities fight to maintain their lives; occasionally some have just had enough and literally lose the will to live. It is far from inconceivable that victims of miscarriages of justice can reach a parallel psychological position and lose the will to fight.
The confession of guilt – true or not – in such a high profile case, believed for many years by many people to be an obvious miscarriage of justice, is of course potentially immensely damaging to innocent people fighting their case, as so many do with incredible courage and tenacity. It plays into the hands of those who would wish to cover up injustice and hide behind disingenuous reasoning and it reassures the public with a false comfort that all is well, when in reality much is seriously wrong.
I hope however that no one will be deterred from supporting miscarriage of justice cases by Simon Hall’s apparent confession and that it will not be used to justify more judicial and bureaucratic intransigence.
Despite my somewhat presumptuous attempts to try to explain why this might have happened and why we must be cautious of how it is interpreted, the most important thing for everyone involved in trying to resolve miscarriages of justice is to know that this is, as far as I can see, an unprecedented event.
In 20 plus years of studying miscarriages of justice, while there may have been a few cases where people have for a short time maintained innocence before admitting guilt, I can think of no other high profile, widely supported case where the person has maintained innocence over many years and pursued the case through legal avenues (CCRC, Court of Appeal) and then admitted guilt.
It has happened the other way round, of course, with false confessions later retracted but never in my experience has there been any other case of this happening in a comparable way.
I do not know Simon Hall or what has happened to lead him to this position. I hope he will soon be well enough or honest enough to provide a full explanation. I have however met many victims of miscarriages of justice, some cleared, some still convicted, whom I believe to be innocent. For them, the struggle needs to go on more intensively than ever.
Dr Dennis Eady is founder of South Wales Liberty (now South Wales Against Wrongful Conviction) and case consultant at Cardiff Law School Innocence Project