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Inside Justice Column

By Louise Shorter on

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From Inside Time May 2011 

Many will remember Sean Hodgson from the various wings he inhabited during his 27 year stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Confessing, when first questioned, to the murder of Theresa De Simone in 1979, he pleaded not guilty during his trial in 1982 with his defence team pointing to a history of pathological lying. But Sean Hodgson was convicted.

A year later another man, David Lace, confessed to the crime while he was living in Devon, but was not believed. He took his own life five years later in 1988. Sean Hodgson remained in prison.

A decade later, Sean Hodgson’s legal team applied to the Forensic Science Service to locate crucial exhibits for re-testing but were told they’d been destroyed. Another ten years passed before the FSS discovered their mistake, found the lost exhibits, and retested them to discover Sean Hodgson was innocent as claimed. He was freed in 2009 in a storm of publicity and spoke, not only of his incarceration for 27 years, but specifically of the last 10 years when the exhibits had been lost while in ‘secure storage’ at the FSS. Sadly, his experience of lost or destroyed exhibits is far from isolated.

Every innocent prisoner knows scientific advances are the 21st century solution to getting a case back to the Court of Appeal. But the difficulties involved in identifying that new work can be just the beginning of the struggle. Maslen Merchant, from Hadgkiss, Hughes and Beale, is a lawyer who deals exclusively with miscarriage of justice cases. He says “very often the CPS and the police simply ignore your correspondence and requests for access to exhibits. The CPS is very often far from helpful. In order to instruct a ballistics expert, I once asked the CPS the question “Would you please confirm the location of the exhibit?” I was told “In a secure store”. One fingerprint expert I instructed travelled over 100 miles to attend an appointment to view some fingerprint lifts. When he got there he was told that, in fact, the force concerned did not have the lifts in question and that he did not have the necessary permission to view them anyway. When he produced the letter of authority I had been sent by the CPS he was told to “complain” or to “do a judicial review”.

Correna Platt, partner at Stephensons Solicitors LLP and member of the Inside Justice Advisory Panel agrees the system of needing information and permission to re-test from the very people who’ve got their collar: the exhibits officer from the original police investigation team and the CPS leads to a certain “lack of urgency.” Even once the location of an exhibit has been established and permission finally granted the pace of progress is more akin to Walking with Dinosaurs than Waking the Dead. “There are further delays with the FSS liaising with our expert” Correna Platt explains “and significant administrative costs are encountered even at this stage. The costs are further increased if reexamination of exhibits is required as the prosecution expert will insist on being present; the costs are therefore effectively doubled.”

Reviewing the trial papers of a violent sexual attack last year, I discovered a key exhibit had never been forensically tested. This was inexplicable as the prosecution had needed to rely on a rather weak, partial DNA match to secure the conviction at trial. Once I’d spotted the police oversight, the prisoner’s solicitor swung into action and has successfully secured legal aid and a laboratory is on standby to do the tests which could secure his freedom. It took two weeks to spot the original police oversight and, so far, six months and counting to be allowed access to the exhibit.

Delays such as this are frustratingly common and one which could get a whole lot worse if lethargy and a lack of urgency are joined by chaos and indecisiveness from the clearout at the FSS.

I’m delighted to report that another case Inside Justice has been investigating is progressing well and we’re embarking on making a television programme with the BBC about this wrongful conviction. Sadly this means I’ll be unable to bring you news of the unit’s work over the next couple of months as we concentrate all our efforts on helping this prisoner but we should be back in the summer with further news.