In January 1997 Victor Nealon began a discretionary life sentence which would see him serve 17 years in custody. Last Friday he started his new life, on the streets of Birmingham and with nowhere to stay after the State had washed its hands of him.
This case raises many fundamental issues about the state of our criminal justice system not least:
- How such an inadequate investigation was allowed to proceed all the way to conviction;
- What the police should do to address the inadequacies of what happened in this case;
- Why the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) failed to adequately investigate this case in two previous reviews; and
- What does it say about our society that we simply turn out men like Victor Nealon onto the street after 17 years.
The facts of this case are probably well known but it is worth going over the basic details, no doubt these facts will be further explained when the Court of Appeal’s reasons are issued next year.
Victor Nealon was convicted of attempted rape in 1997. The evidence used to secure his conviction was a disputed ID parade and a weakened alibi. It seems the court was under the impression that there was no DNA evidence available from the exhibits.
Importantly, Victor Nealon had offered his DNA to the police in order that they could have exculpated him from the offence. The officer did not arrange any DNA tests.
What the jury did not know was that the exhibits had not been tested. Only the skirt of the victim was produced at the trial and the remaining exhibits remained in their sealed bags.
Following a first failed appeal by the same legal team who it appears had taken their eye off the ball during the original case, Victor Nealon was left to apply to a newly formed independent body CCRC. His was not a fishing expedition to seek to obtain DNA evidence to support his cause, he knew his DNA was not on the items and he urged the commission to undertake those tests. In two separate applications advanced by experienced appeal lawyers, the Commission rejected the application putting forward – it’s then held proposition that “it did not undertake speculative tests”. This was a serious error by the commission. It is not believed it is a policy it still maintains but the damage to Victor Nealon was done.
The commission in its final review demonstrated a more open approach and both the case review manager and the chairman of the CCRC, Richard Foster were present last Friday at the Court of Appeal. In 2008 having been approached we saw the only way forward was to seek to do what the Commission would not and, as a result, with support from the Legal Aid Agency we commissioned DNA tests. As we know the results were startling – showing that in most of the clothing of the victim an unknown male was identified as the contributor, not Victor Nealon.
Not the end of the story
As Peter Wilcock QC said in the Court of Appeal on 13th December such evidence was likely to have had a dynamite impact upon the Trial. That of course is not the end of the story in this case and there will be much more to be said.
There was the disputed ID evidence in which Victor Nealon was not identified by any of the key witnesses. In respect of the limited identifications that did follow there remains the question of why the police officer dealing with the case was present at the ID Parade. There is the question why the same officer failed to act on the DNA evidence and why late rebuttal evidence over an alibi which was not produced until the end of the trial.
In a current atmosphere where the integrity of the police is called into question this case offers little comfort. It is yet another troubling case for the police. It will be for the police to answer these issues as well as what action it now intends to take.
And if the appellant was let down by the police and the CCRC in the past, you might of at least thought he could rely on the support of the state on his release.
The reality is that whilst the Court of Appeal has a miscarriage of justice unit, it is wholly underfunded and as a result there is little safety net for those who are released by the Court of Appeal. This is exaggerated when due to cost saving an appellant like Victor Nealon is released from a distant prison.
The net result was that he was left by the state to wander the streets until help could be found for him. Finally he will now face the prospect of mounting a claim for compensation in an atmosphere in which the Secretary of State for Justice is seeking to narrow the test for compensation.
We should have a system in place for cases like this where those released are fully supported and receive urgent interim financial support. Disturbingly the State will instead put every hurdle in the way of Victor Nealon as he fights to have his life restored.
We end this article where we started. This is a deeply troubling case which says many things about the state of our Criminal Justice System. If they have not changed already then they should ask searching questions about their conduct and role in miscarriages such as these.
Finally let’s not forget the poor victim today who has had what happened to her dredged up 17 years after the event. Had this case been properly investigated in the first place she would not have been placed in this situation.
This case exposes the failings of our justice system and as this case fades from the news we must ensure the issues do not.
Mark is a solicitor advocate and criminal law specialist with QualitySolicitors Jordans. He is an advisor to the Innocent Network UK and has overturned a number of high profile wrongful convictions - notably the cases of Ian Lawless and Anver Sheikh who overturned his conviction on his third appeal.