Sunday, 21 November 2010

Innocence project conference - a few notes...

With emotion and anger in his voice, he gave a lengthy speech, plunging the audience in a complete stupor. At the age of fifteen, Paul Blackburn (pictured) was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. Because he was labelled as a sexual offender, he explained in crude words how he suffered daily violence and abuse, was stabbed twice in the throat, and was even ordered by the warders to clean the floor of his own blood. Once transferred to a prison for adults, he became addicted to heroine.

Now forty-seven, Paul has spent half of his life in a cell, fighting inmates and taking drugs. Although Blackburn won his appeal in 2005, the two Cheshire police detectives who forced him to write a confession in 1978 never apologised. They are now retired and enjoy a full police pension. In a statement obtained by the Guardian, Cheshire police said: “This case was investigated 31 years ago, when rules relating to the questioning of suspects and the submission of evidence were very different to standards today."

This story is not unique. Miscarriages of justice do happen, and while most prisoners are factually guilty, the legal system is not perfect. Michael Naugthon, founder and chair of the Innocence Network UK wrote in the Guardian: “The INUK and its member innocence projects exist to give help and, perhaps most crucially, hope to potentially innocent victims of wrongful conviction or imprisonment who have exhausted the appeals system and legal aid services. Offering fresh pairs of eyes, students aim to find new evidence or argument that will assist them in making an application to the CCRC* or to the Scottish CCRC.”

CCRC*: Criminal Case Review Commission

Internet Investigation Techniques and Tracing Witnesses

By Neil Smith, Investigative researcher and trainer

Neil Smith gave us an insight into tracing people on the Internet using legal means.

When searching on Google, try to be specific, and use the advanced research tool. Google is much more powerful than we think.

Open Source is an amazing tool when tracing people. It contains many free UK database websites.

If you are looking for someone who is abroad, try Search Engine This website lists international search engines, from Aaland to Zimbabwe. is a website that helps you tracing people. You just need to enter a name, and it will find social network pages, articles and even Amazon wish lists about the individual you are looking for.

Governing body websites are a gold mine of information. If the person you are looking for was/is a doctor, nurse, dentist or teacher for example, chances are that some information will be available on the web. Here are two governing body websites: Law Society for lawyers or GMC for doctors. lists bankrupt people and gives their details.

Social network like Facebook, Twitter or Myspace are very useful. Even if the person you’re looking for is not on these websites, you can still try to find their relatives on them.

Friends Reunited is an old website that can be useful as it’s an old version of Facebook.

You can also look at these websites: Police Reunited, Scouts Reunited, Nurses Reconnected, Convicts Reunited. All of them are free. allows you to search birth, marriage and death certificates. is the same type of website, but you will have to pay to access information.

Neil Smith's website.

An investigative journalism approach to overturn alleged wrongful convictions

By Dr Eamonn O’Neil, award-winning investigative journalist

Investigative journalism must be the result of the journalists’ work and effort. It must involve material someone is trying to keep hidden. It also has to be in the public interest.

“Investigative journalism is the search for the best obtainable version of the truth”

Carl Berstein

Investigation techniques: in depth document analysis, move beyond documents and interviews, systematic project management and case review, innovative search techniques for witnesses and new evidence, specialised interview techniques and computer assisted reporting. Undercover reporter and secret filming are to be used only in last resort. You need to work from the facts outwards and not from a thesis inwards. And you must understand the legal system in which you are working.

How to proceed with the case: Evaluate all the case files as soon as possible, and start looking for anomalies in the prosecution & defence. Read as many news clips as possible.

On the field: Trace witnesses; try to find the policemen who were involved in the case.

One piece of advice… when interviewing potentially dangerous people, always meet them in a public place, never go on your own, get someone to follow you. Always tell them if you are recording the conversation. If you take them to the crime scene, rehearse the situation and see their reaction, examine the circumstances.

Try to know about the witnesses and their personalities before meeting them.

Generally, use your common sense and be safe.

The limitation of DNA evidence

By Professor Allan Jamieson, founder of the Forensic Institute in Glasgow

This section will be brief I am afraid, as the session was particularly difficult to understand for me – the man had a strong Scottish accent…

I have learnt that:

- One can move someone else’s DNA from an object to another.

- Although extremely unlikely, nothing proves that two people can’t have the same DNA.

- Interpretation of DNA analysis can be very difficult, and mistakes can happen, mostly when there are different DNA on the same object.

- If for some reason the DNA analysis doesn’t give you the name of the murderer, it can still exclude some of the suspects.

Read carefully the wording of the prosecution. If you find sentences like:

“The evidence is consistent with…”

“This is what I would expect to see if…”

“The findings would support assertions of…”

“…was consistent with DNA from the people being present”

“This could not be excluded”

This kind of sentences proves absolutely nothing, it is just hypothetical.

The failure of the criminal justice system and methodology to prove innocence

By Dr Michael Naughton and Gabe Tan

Naughton said that the system needs to change. Although the British legal system is one of the best in the world, it is flawed.

Many people claim their innocence when there are not, which definitely undermine factually innocent people. Some claim their innocence because they don’t understand what they did, or some believe that what they did was justified and therefore legal.

He also insisted about students’ commitment: “You will never progress in a case if you work an hour a week on it”.

Gabe Tan urged students to retain all the evidence. Never EVER destroy documents. They may seem irrelevant now, but they can be useful later.

Go through all the files: unused witness statements/evidence.

Search the evidence that could prove innocence, look at similar cases in archives that you could relate to the case you work on.

DNA exonarations are rare in the UK.

The absence of evidence doesn’t prove the evidence of absence. If DNA wasn’t found, the criminal could have found way to leave the scene “clean”.

Try to get a full account of the story. And last but not least, every piece of evidence has to be understood in the context.

This is how to conference ended – according to my notes anyway. I hope you will find this article useful for your future researches.

picture: The Guardian


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