Sandra Lean's carefully researched book covers the cases of seven people wrongly convicted of murder - Derek Christian, John Taft, Gordon Park, Simon Hall, Luke Mitchell, Susan May and Sion Jenkins,Power, Resistance, Knowledge: The Epistemology of Policing
spanning a period of twelve years. Each case is clearly presented, and each account, indeed the whole book, is driven by outrage against a system which leads so casually to such frightening miscarriages of justice.
The book is worth reading for the accounts of the cases alone. Each account has been checked by the miscarriage of justice victims themselves, and their families and supporters. The book should be bought and read for the accounts of the cases alone. You could then draw your own conclusions about how easily a miscarriage of justice can happen, especially it seems in these very serious cases.
Sandra Lean adds to this a carefully considered analysis of the features of miscarriage of justice cases. The book is an attempt to answer how the prosecutions could succeed despite the presence of them.
The difficulty with accounts like this which are fuelled by outrage is that, however careful and accurate they are, they do not fully answer this question. By the end of each chapter on a case, we know very clearly why the person concerned should not have been convicted, indeed should never have been put on trial. But we do not know why the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was a case to answer, why the trial judge thought the case could be safely left to a jury to decide, and why the jury felt sure that the person was guilty.
In the final chapters Ms Lean reviews flaws in police and court procedures, expert witness practices, the role of the media and the defects of the appeal system. Since the same problems occur again and again, she argues that "we have to conclude that there is something more than simple chance or coincidence at play. Is it possible,"she asks, "that some quite deliberate and calculated processes are undertaken knowingly, and acceptably, within the various organisations which make up the criminal justice system...? If so, on whose authority are these processes sanctioned?" (pp. 158-9).
This sounds like a conspiracy. But where is the evidence for a conspiracy spreading from Scotland to the south coast of England? In the end, Sandra Lean doesn't plump for a conspiracy, and instead proposes a series of reforms to regulate the various criminal justice agencies and review cases thoroughly. She thinks that we, the public, should "demand that our justice system is based on a search for the truth...". As any police officer would say when investigating a crime: "I'm only trying to find the truth."
Or is perhaps truth itself the problem: how it is found or produced, who is able to say, and from what insitutional position, what the truth is (and who is disqualified from being able to tell the truth)? We need to think hard about what we want to have accepted as truth before we can tackle the strange kinds of evidence produced by the police, accepted as powerful proof by juries, and upheld by appeal judges. Books like this provide us with the information and analysis which is essential if we are ever to challenge a system which, year by year, extends the problems which lead to wrongful convictions, and, of course, encourages the perpetrators of horrific crimes to seek more victims.