Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

For the last four years, I have worked with Inside Justice, a charity that investigates potential cases of miscarriages of justice.

We are seeing a sharp increase of letters from prisoners convicted of historic sex abuses and protesting their innocence – and there is good reason to think this situation will only get worse. In recognition of the challenge these extremely serious cases represent, I wanted to find out more about a rare thing in the miscarriage of justice world: a success in overturning a conviction of a historic sex abuse case.

 Chris Saltrese, a solicitor who has specialised in false abuse allegations for 18 years, points out some of the problems in making an appeal.

‘Convictions for abuse cases are mainly based on one thing: oral testimony of the victim… . In the absence of other supporting evidence like eyewitnesses or forensic evidence, it can be very difficult to get fresh evidence necessary for an appeal. Over the last 10 years, I imagine there have been several thousands of wrongful convictions. Since [notorious DJ Jimmy] Savile, it has gone off the scale.’

Prisoners who say they are innocent will often turn to a campaign group or an organisation like Inside Justice when they hit a legal brick wall. But as Louise Shorter, who runs Inside Justice, explains, these cases prove uniquely difficult for us too:

‘If a murder case comes into the unit it is usually rich with possibilities for new investigations, be they forensic or otherwise. With any sex offence case the paucity of evidence, the very thing most people will point to as a reason for believing in innocence, is our enemy. Scant evidence equals scant opportunities to test if the conviction is safe.’

To make sense of the current situation, it’s relevant to consider current practices in policing and prosecuting these sensitive cases.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer has said of people who contact the police claiming to be victims: ‘These complainants must be believed.’

Talking to the BBC’s Today Programme, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who oversees child abuse investigations for the National Police Chiefs Council, said:
‘We are now dealing with an unprecedented number of victims who are having the confidence and courage to come forward and report non-recent sexual abuse. I am predicting an 88% increase this year – the police service will investigate approximately 70,000 allegations of child abuse.’

So if overturning a wrongful conviction in this category of crime is so difficult, are there successes we can learn from? In America in 1984, John Stoll was found guilty of 17 counts of child molestation.  Six children gave evidence to court that Stoll had molested them.

Alex Simpson was the associate director of the Innocence Project based at California University when they were contacted by John Stoll asking for help to appeal his conviction.

Alex was informed the victims in the Stoll case might be willing to talk to them. Despite the apparent willingness, Alex approached the victims with caution, aware of how difficult it can be. ‘How do you have that conversation?’ Alex explains. ‘Kids tend to be vulnerable, eager to please and pick up on the answer you want.’

In the course of the investigation, it appeared that the victims were coerced by law enforcement officials into making false allegations of abuse against Stoll when they were boys.

The case took five years of work and the focus of five attorneys. The accusers took the stand in a Kern County Superior Court room and said that the stories of sexual abuse they told as children were lies, and recanted their testimony.

After 20 years in prison, John’s conviction was overturned and he adjusted to life as a free man.

Reflecting on the case, Alex said: ‘The thing that drove us with the Stoll case was that the whole thing was made up.’

In 2013, Inside Justice was contacted by a man accused by family members of having sexually abused them years earlier. We joined forces with a miscarriage of justice initiative at the University of East Anglia called justiceproject@uea to see if there were any grounds to believe what he’d been saying since the allegations first emerged: that he is completely innocent.

The judge allowed the testimony of each of the victims to be cross admissible, effectively allowing them to corroborate each other’s evidence.

In the course of a painstaking review of the evidence, court statements, police interviews – the unused material gathered by the police during their extensive investigation – justiceproject@uea uncovered a number of important issues.

The accounts of the abuse given in evidence at trial differed significantly when the victims re-told others a year later. They found evidence in the unused material of previous false allegations made by one of the victims.  The jury was never given this important piece of information before deciding whose testimony to believe. Finally it was established that an element of one of the victim’s account of the abuse was patently untrue.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the organisation which investigates cases and has the power to refer to the Court of Appeal, has accepted the case submission and will begin a full review in January 2016.

Steve Heaton, the leader of justiceproject@uea says: ‘This case was enormously tough for students, the odds are stacked against us in making an appeal. After months of work, we believe we have presented some compelling reasons to cast doubts on this conviction.’

There are current concerns about the investigation of forensic elements of sex offences. Recently, the Forensic Science Regulator announced a review of poor forensic practice in sex abuse cases.

Gill Tully, the government’s watchdog on forensic matters, told the Guardian that the review, which will last until summer 2016, was prompted when she was told about cases where ‘the scientific opportunities don’t appear to have been maximised’. In some cases, no scientific analysis was carried out at all.

The review focus is on sex abuse cases because they are complex and often not well resourced. £20 million cuts in funding for forensic examination have added to concerns about criminal justice being compromised.  These concerns translate to historic abuse investigations.

They can’t all be making it up
The recent BBC Panorama film, The VIP Paedophile Ring: What’s the truth? raised questions about victims’ testimony being largely uncorroborated.

Peter Spindler is a former police commander who investigated the victims’ claims of abuse by Savile.  Talking about victims coming forward, Spindler told Panorama:  ‘The thousands of people who have come forward… cannot all be making it up.’

With his years of experience representing people charged with historic abuse crimes Chris Saltrese sees things from a different perspective: ‘There have been hundreds of convictions [of historic sex abuse], they can’t all be guilty.’

Between these polar opposite views, one thing is clear: no one is getting justice if more can’t be done to corroborate historic abuse cases where doubts have been raised about the safety of the conviction.

For more information on the John Stoll case follow, here

This article first appeared on Inside Justice’s web site, here

Profile photo of Charlotte Rowles About Charlotte Rowles
Charlotte works as a freelance journalist for BBC Panorama and Dispatches doing undercover investigations into a range of subjects including suspicious deaths in custody. She is a former probation officer. Charlotte is also a case worker for Inside Justice

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  • trevor December 15, 2015 5:45 pm

    there are few things more distressing than when one has been abused and when the victim turns to the criminal justice system which proceeds to let them down in the most shameless unjust and inexcusable way.
    and then when the architects of the so called Justice system turn around and start boasting about so called British Values such as the rule of Law,
    that probably intensifies the distress the victims of sexual abuse feel
    as their cries for Justice seem to be ignored by the very people who control the Justice system which appears to protect the guilty.

  • Martin Worster January 11, 2016 4:03 pm

    I have been accused 3 times now Once in 2003 again in 2015 and again in Jan 2016. There was noe evidence first time the secontime after retracting the accusation until it went to court the same person who has raped his cousins, abused a baby by kissing on his nappy third time I was arrested again and accused again.He went to a jounier prision and when he came out accused me again with one of his cousin friends. This has beeen going on for 13 years now and I am innocent but no one beleives me. I have statements that no such abuse happened but that is not enough. Please help me

  • Neill March 31, 2016 11:55 pm

    I had a false allegation made against me nearly two years ago. It still haunts me now. I was lucky in some ways because the case was NFA’d; but only after I handed in evidence which undermined the allegation. The police were told about this evidence during my interview but never contacted me to investigate it. They later admitted they wish they had seen copies of the letters earlier. It’s clear the Police aren’t impartial in these cases and even though the case didn’t go further, I still have to live with the fact it may show up on an enhanced DBS in the future. This is despite the fact my employers conducted an internal investigation and the LADO meeting concluded unanimously that it was malicious. My accuser is now being investigated for fraud and perverting the course of justice but my life will never be the same again. I had to leave my job due to the impact on my health, damage to my reputation and absolute humiliation caused. There needs to be tougher actions taken against people who make false allegations.

    • William April 4, 2016 11:50 am

      You have been lucky Neil, for you did not encounter the new law that is sending thousands to prison and even now causing problems for they cannot handle this big influx of old men found guilty of incidents that they are accused committing at any time within their lives – maybe 40 or 50 years ago.
      How has the law changed? Simply put no corroborating evidence is now required in sexual assault cases. So if you state that she consented – which is legal – She can take you to court and say she did not consent – which is illegal. Because you admit to any sexual act you WILL be convicted for the jury will follow our culture and always defend the weakest – since no other evidence is required by this new law. I understand – by what I read in the press – that men who say that they did nothing are usually found not guilty because there is no proof as there is in admitting to a consenting act – in reality – the man the truthful man convicts himself
      What is further interesting and I believe is the cause of all these thousands of accusations now appearing – especially against those who have money, is that the accuser can automatically claim compensation of £10,000 to £50,000 and whilst my accuser obtained £18,654 her solicitor charged her fee to me of £54,981 — which was their fee for a 30 minute hearing.
      So a now understandable that an offer of a “No win no fee” is a big motivator for solicitors to search and find accusers, obtain an easy conviction and then arrange a confirmed compensation case..
      When I was released I immediately made my own appeal against this compensation court’s ruling – this was because my accuser’s solicitors had placed a freezing injunction upon my assets and they refused to allow me to withdraw funds for legal representation to defend myself at this hearing. My appeal was based upon the fact that that I could prove by previous police statements and independent witnesses that over 90% of my accusers statements to the court were false – but I was refused an appeal because “potential unfairness to the respondent who has had an unchallenged order in her favour for so long” and I was also refused an oral hearing to contest this judgement. So it appears that accepting perjury and so avoid proof of their mistakes, is not a problem for our “Justice System”
      Yes Neil, you have been lucky for many retired men have had their lives ruined by what they state are false accusations which happened when they were teenagers and also the many men who now stand opened mouthed when they are convicted — for like me — they think the law and justice with protect them against false accusations – IT DOES NOT?

  • William April 4, 2016 11:55 am

    can you inform me as to why my truthful report dated
    William Reply
    November 18, 2015 at 5:17 pm
    is still awaiting moderation?
    Thank you in anticipation

    • Profile photo of Jon Robins
      Jon Robins April 5, 2016 7:01 am

      Hello William, we don’t run comments posted which are about an individual’s case. Sorry, I know that might be frustrating – and has nothing to do with whether or not we think it’s truthful. Best wishes, Jon

      • William April 5, 2016 11:14 am

        Thank you Jon for the reply which is confusing for I have just read an interesting individuals case where man was abused by the justice system for have a toy gun on a train. Not showing individual truths – with a disclaimer – means that you just print gossip??
        I think this big gap in our Justice system filled by its developing use of terror, abuse and how it is now developing legal class and political prejudice, should not this be revealed to the general public – is this not truth?

        • Profile photo of Jon Robins
          Jon Robins April 6, 2016 7:05 am

          Sorry if I wasn’t clear – and we should make this clearer on the site because it’s an issue that often comes up – is when someone posting a comment discusses their own case in some detail. We just can’t check the facts and we don’t know if it’s true, fair on other parties or going to land us in legal hot water. Separately, we’re just not the right place for that. That said, we do welcome your comments. Best wishes, Jon

          • William April 8, 2016 6:04 pm

            Thank you Jon it is now clear and understood but I can bring you corroborating evidence that all, I speak about is a fact and so True.
            Best wishes
            ps why are you not the right place for people to put truthful answers to various comments proving the “gaps” in our justices system ?

  • Nathan Hancock April 24, 2016 2:28 am

    Nothing will change in this country certainly something that is as big as it now is”Historical Sexual Abuse” there’s too much money involved for the complainant, Solicitors, it all boils down too twelve People who only have a snapshot of the defendants life and if they believe the defendant all well and good if innocent. But regardless of innocence your guilty until proven innocent. Their are many being arrested and processed for the courts lol Courts I use that term losely, But when an innocent person has been proved innocent the accusershould be jailed and stripped.

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