A Remedy For Miscarriages Of Justice

The February 1997 release of three men for the murder of 13 year old paperboy Carl Bridgewater has highlighted yet again the endemic corruption of not only the British police but of the entire legal establishment. The three men were cleared finally when forensic tests proved that a confession had been induced by artifice, but only after they had spent nineteen years in prison. Their acquittal was met with the usual calls for a full inquiry, assurances that there would be no (further) cover-up and that any guilty parties would be brought to book. Where have we heard this before?

The Bridgewater Three (1) were only the latest in a long line of miscarriages of justice which include, but are not limited to, the Broadwater Farm Three, (2) the Guildford Four, and the Birmingham Six. What can be done to prevent such cases in future?

The Police And Criminal Evidence Act, 1984, has gone some way towards remedying the inadequacies of both the system and individual police officers. The fact that police interviews must now be taped reduces considerably - but does not eliminate altogether - the possibility of confessions being beaten out of suspects, or more likely, of suspects being verballed up.

The real problem though is that where the police or other civil servants commit flagrant abuses, including criminal acts, they are seldom if ever brought to book. There were no successful prosecutions for any of the above miscarriages of justice, and it is doubtful if there will be in the Bridgewater case either. And it is the individuals concerned who must be held personally accountable, and if necessary, prosecuted, not the nebulous entity of the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police, or whatever.

In the commercial field a company which breaks the law can be prosecuted and fined. The rationale for this is that a company exists in order to make a profit for its shareholders. Fining a company penalises the shareholders and keeps them on the straight and narrow. In very serious cases, directors and other employees of companies can be held personally liable.

There is though no real incentive for police officers to behave if the Chief Constable is held vicariously responsible. All that happens is that when, say, a member of the public brings an action against the police for false imprisonment, the lawyers fight all the way and settle at the court door. The taxpayer or ratepayer is then left to pick up the tab. Collective responsibility is no responsibility at all.

On the other hand, if individual police officers and individual civil servants were made personally liable for their misdeeds we would see a dramatic drop in the number of miscarriages of justice. Apart from the rare instances of police officers prosecuted for perjury there is absolutely no sign that this happens.

In his excellent study of miscarriages of justice Presumed Guilty, (3) Michael Mansfield QC relates what is surely the most horrific case of all. Stefan Kiszko was gaoled for life and spent sixteen years in prison for a horrific sex murder. He was convicted on the basis of an induced confession. But the most shocking aspect of the case was not the behaviour of the police, who in all probability believed they’d got the right man, but of the prosecution. Forensic evidence that would have acquitted him was in the hands of the prosecution at the time of his trial, but was not disclosed.

This means that the prosecution deliberately and wilfully kept an innocent man in gaol for the best years of his life, branded as the lowest of the low, a child sex killer. (Sadly, Stefan Kiszko died shortly after his release), This scenario is almost too terrible to contemplate. Kidnapping is a relative rare though serious crime; sentences are typically in the region of ten years up. Most kidnap victims are imprisoned only for a few hours or a few days. Stefan Kiszko was imprisoned falsely for sixteen years, but the individuals who perpetrated this crime were never called to account.

Every day, people’s lives are ruined by corrupt police officers, dishonest prosecutors, overzealous and at times overtly fascistic and sadistic civil servants, social workers and a plethora of other bureaucrats, often for no better reason than their failing to comply precisely to the letter of some niggardly piece of legislation or because some quango or government department is engaged in an empire-building exercise or being used by anonymous gerrymanderers to harass their political enemies.

Such abuses, prosecutions and injustices will continue until bent coppers, vindictive civil servants and incompetent social workers are held personally accountable for the misery and suffering they inflict wilfully on innocent members of the public.

[Unpublished review from September 1997.]

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