Review: Jon Robins, Guilty Until Proven Innocent

by Suzanne Gower

It seems fitting that Jon Robin’s book was published in the same week that the death of the indefatigable journalist and campaigner Bob Woffinden was announced. With this book Robins capably carries on the tradition of impassioned campaigning journalism on behalf of people who have had their lives torn apart by miscarriages of justice.

One of the key themes of the book is Robin’s exploration of the horrendous impact of wrongful convictions, not just on those convicted, but also on their wider circle of family and friends. Perhaps the starkest example is that of Sam Hallam’s father, driven to suicide whilst his son was unjustly imprisoned. But a recurring theme throughout the book is the importance of the love and support of friends and family to surviving injustice, and the depths of despair to which all concerned are taken in their difficult journey. It is to be hoped that this book will provide inspiration to the hundreds of families who find themselves in this situation.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent provides an important historical context to recent high-profile cases such as that of Liam Allan which have brought to light the massive problems created by the current provisions for disclosure in criminal cases. Jon Robins demonstrates clearly that whilst, doubtless, the criminal justice system is desperately underfunded and in need of urgent, significant investment, that alone would not come close to remedying those problems which have created the miscarriages of justice cases covered within this book. The structural problems with the Appeals system, including the seemingly dysfunctional relationship between the CCRC and the Court of Appeal, are long-standing and require a radical approach to address.

I was especially interested in the chapters that dealt with areas of particular concern to those of us at the Centre for Criminal Appeals.

We currently receive more letters from prisoners convicted of historic sex offences than all other offence types put together. Nearly all of these letters come from elderly men with no previous convictions who now find themselves imprisoned on the basis of nothing more than the word of their accusers. When the accusations concern events of two, three or even four decades earlier, there is no expectation of there being any corroborative evidence, and the system allows juries to convict “beyond all reasonable doubt” solely on the basis of one person’s word. Any proven discrepancies in the complainants’ accounts are dismissed as due to the natural frailty of human memory. How can you begin to defend yourself in such circumstances? These men truly are considered guilty until proved innocent.  Our problem, faced by all appeal lawyers in such cases, is how to generate fresh evidence in a 40-year-old case. In the vast majority it is simply not possible – witnesses have moved away or died; memories have faded; records have been lost or destroyed; even the buildings where the events are alleged to have taken place may have been significantly altered or knocked down. If there is no prospect of finding fresh evidence then we cannot help these people, no matter how desperately sorry we might feel for them or how inadequate we consider the protections that the criminal justice system has offered them. These cases trouble us greatly and it is important that Jon Robins has shone a light on them in this book.

The other chapter which was of particular interest to us was that which considered the issue of ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ or ‘Abusive Head Trauma’ as it is now often categorised. As Robins contests, there is no other area where people are convicted of a serious crime solely on the basis of a doctor’s diagnosis – not of a medical condition but of a criminal offence. The doctors who give evidence in such cases are making highly technical arguments relating to the field of paediatric neuropathology to judges and juries with no other evidence to corroborate it. This diagnosis is then used to prove not only “the mechanism of death but also the intent to harm and the identity of the killer.”  If this in itself were not sufficient cause for concern, then add in the other side of the debate: namely, the admittedly much smaller number of scientists who, having queried the scientific validity of the diagnosis, have been actively pursued by the authorities with express purpose of preventing them from giving evidence for the defence.  The persecution of Dr Waney Squiers is explored at length in the book and the reader is left with a clear view of the perfect storm of conditions which are currently generating miscarriages of justice in this area of “science”.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent is an important book which deserves to be widely read, particularly by those who have the power to bring about the urgent change which is so badly needed to the way that miscarriages of justice are dealt with in this country.

James Burley