Wednesday, October 31, 2007

DNA to the rescue once again

A masked rapist was tracked down after 14 years when a relative gave a DNA sample in a completely unrelated case. Detectives reopened the investigation into the violent assault in Bridgwater, in Somerset, in 1993 when test results revealed a family connection to the attacker. More than 4,000 people related to the arrested man were traced and tested before detectives caught up with 42-year-old Geoffrey Godfrey.

Godfrey, now 42, raped the 36-year-old married mother of two after he attacked her as she walked along a canal towpath. Although the rapist’s DNA was recovered from semen samples, Godfrey was not on any data-base. Only this year after the arrest of a relative were detectives able to draw up a family tree and narrow the search for the attacker.

At Bristol Crown Court yesterday, Godfrey admitted rape, attempted buggery and indecent assault. Judge Julian Lambert, sentencing him to six years in jail, said: “The terror and distress you caused to that lady towers above all else in this case.”

The court heard that Godfrey attacked his victim on a canal bridge in Bridgwater, Somerset, at 1am on April 25, 1993. Godfrey, wearing a dark balaclava and gloves, grabbed the woman from behind and used one hand to cover her mouth while he raped her. Martin Steen, prosecuting, said the woman was too terrified to scream for fear of what he might do to her. Mr Steen said: ”She tried to keep his hands away from her but she failed. Her tights were ripped as he pulled at them. She also became aware her T-shirt had been pulled up.” The victim, in a statement read to the court, said that she was still traumatised by the attack and was afraid to go out at night.

Ian Pringle QC, mitigating, said that Godfrey had a good reputation and those who knew him including his wife and sister found it difficult to believe that he committed the offence. He said: “He is known in the community as a decent, hard-working individual. He clearly acted all those years ago in a terribly out-of-character way.”

This is the first time Avon and Somerset police have successfully used familial evidence in a cold-case rape investigation. Godfrey was implicated after DNA from another family member convicted of an unrelated crime was added to the DNA database. The review of the case began in 2005 and details of more than 4,000 potential matches had to be processed and eliminated to produce the “one in a billion” match.

Tests were performed over a 16-month period and voluntary swabs were obtained from Godfrey in September 2006. The Forensic Science Service in Birmingham took three days to confirm him as the rapist. Detective Sergeant Mike Britton, who headed the investigation, revealed that there were still more than 20 undetected DNA profiles on the database for similar offences He said: “This result sends a clear message to anyone who thinks they have escaped justice for similar offences. “With every advance in science it is only a matter of time before they, too, are arrested.”

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Australia: Loutish killer out of jail in less than a year

A man whose "impulsive and loutish" push led to the death of an 83-year-old Sydney war veteran could be free in less than a year. In jailing Craig William Wheatley for a minimum of two years today, Justice Virginia Bell accepted he had not intended to cause Robert Narramore any physical harm. After drinking three bottles of beer and having a heated argument with an acquaintance, Wheatley pushed Mr Narramore aside on a footpath at Riverwood in Sydney's south-west in September last year. Mr Narramore, who had turned 83 the day before, then fell into the path of a passing car.

Wheatley, 46, of Riverwood, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the NSW Supreme Court. Justice Bell said his history of chronic schizophrenia had played no immediate role in his offending behaviour, which she described as "impulsive and loutish". She offered the court's sympathy to Mr Narramore's family, referring to victim impact statements from his grandson and daughter-in-law.

Glenn Narramore, who spoke of his grandfather having "devoted himself to the service of others in the community", had been greatly affected by his loss in such tragic circumstances, the judge said. Joan Narramore referred to the change in her husband, Robert junior, after his father's death. "From being able to handle the everyday stresses of life and work, there is now a little bottle of pills sitting on the shelf," she wrote. "You are reminded of what happened on the TV and in the newspapers and from being just an ordinary 'keep to themselves family' you are put in the spotlight and are expected to be what you are not."

Wheatley had worked as a baker until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1980s, the judge said. Since then he had been on medication and while he had committed some crimes, he had never served a jail term. When examined by a psychiatrist in February, Wheatley said the offence was an accident, adding: "We don't even know if he is deceased or not, with the DNA'". "The police said he was dead but I am not sure," he said.

Calling these statements "bizarre", Justice Bell said Wheatley's mental illness made it difficult to assess his remorse. But she accepted he was unlikely to re-offend by committing any serious offence. Justice Bell backdated his two-year minimum term to when he was taken into custody, meaning he will be eligible for release on parole in September next year. She set a maximum term of three years and nine months.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Texas: In police lineups, eyewitness testimony is usually faulty

In a recent case, DNA analysis wasn't wrong, but witness was. How HPD can reform its lineups

On Tuesday, Oct. 9, a Houston Chronicle headline on a Page One article read: "Something needs to be done." The day before, Ronald Taylor, who had just been released after spending 14 years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit, appeared before City Council to ask that something be done for other wrongfully convicted people in prison. The response of city officials seemed to consider Taylor's wrongful conviction as another example of the problems with the Houston Police Department crime lab. Addressing the problems at the crime lab has been a long and expensive process.

What gets lost in the discussion of Taylor's case is that his conviction was not based on a mistaken analysis of DNA evidence by the HPD crime lab. Taylor was convicted based on mistaken eyewitness testimony of the victim. The only role DNA played in his case is that the Innocence Project found DNA evidence that exonerated Taylor that the HPD crime lab overlooked or ignored.

Taylor's exoneration is similar to other people whose convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence: Seventy-five percent of wrongful convictions result from faulty eyewitness identifications. This is a problem City Council can solve for future cases prosecuted here.

Repeated studies have shown that the traditional lineup procedures produce mistaken identifications. Despite this, HPD continues to use those very same procedures: live and photo lineups, usually conducted by one of the officers involved in the investigation or the arrest of the suspect.

The Innocence Project endorses reforms of the lineup procedures that have been developed to counter the problems with eyewitness lineup identifications. City Council should force HPD to adopt these procedures:

* Blind administration: The police officer administering the lineup (photo or live) should not be told which person in the lineup is the suspect. This procedure sharply reduces the risk of misidentification by witnesses. When the officer knows the identity of the suspect, the officer may inadvertently give the witness subtle or not-so-subtle indications to the witness to pick the suspect.

* Lineup composition: The persons in the lineup must resemble the eyewitness' description of the perpetrator. For example, the suspect should not be the only member of in the lineup with facial hair.

* Sequential lineups: The persons in the lineup should be presented to the witness one-by-one (sequential), not all at once (simultaneous), as is presently done. A sequential lineup reduces the chance the witnesses will identify an innocent persons as the perpetrator. When witnesses view several people at once (for example, a card with six photos), witnesses tend to choose the person who looks the most like but may not actually be the suspect.

* Single view: Witnesses should never be shown separate lineups with the same suspect's photograph, or shown a sequential lineup with more than one photograph of the suspect in the same lineup. When a suspect's photo is included in two separate lineups, or is included more than once in the same lineup, the witness begins to see the suspect as familiar and is more likely to identify the suspect as the perpetrator.

* Instructions: The witnesses viewing a lineup should be told the suspect may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result.

* Confidence statements: Immediately after the lineup, the lineup witnesses should provide a statement, in their own words, articulating their level of confidence in the identification.

* Recording: The identification procedures should be videotaped whenever possible. This protects innocent suspects from any misconduct by the officer conducting the lineup, and helps the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate.

City leaders should be weary of making apologies to innocent people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. By requiring HPD to reform its lineup procedures, the city can reduce the risk of wrongful convictions without spending millions of dollars. The Chronicle headline was right: Something needs to be done. Now.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Australia: Police bungle helps confessed killer

A POLICE bungle means the man who helped a schoolgirl heroin victim shoot up will escape with a minor charge of drug supply despite admitting to police he "killed her". The decision comes eight months after an inquest heard fish shop worker Simon Munro admitted administering heroin that claimed 15-year-old Georgia Chant's life at Narrabeen in 2005. Munro, 27, will face court next month on a single charge of supplying a prohibited drug.

However the move, following the recommendations of the Director of Public Prosecution, has angered Georgia's family, who hoped the former actor from Scotland Island would face manslaughter charges. Georgia's mother Kerry Chant said yesterday the family was upset to learn a interview in which Munro admitted "killing" the teenager was inadmissible because he was not properly warned by police. The family wrote to the DPP, Nicholas Cowdery QC, seeking answers, but was told there was insufficient admissible evidence to lay manslaughter charges.

An angry Ms Chant said she felt abandoned by the system, after police failed to act when Georgia was first reported to be staying with Munro, 24 hours before she died. The low-grade charge was the final insult. "We are gutted . . . absolutely outraged," Ms Chant, who gave The Daily Telegraph permission to identify her daughter, said. "It just shows that somebody can do something so horrendous and get away with it."

The decision comes after Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch terminated an inquest into Georgia's death in February, ruling there was enough evidence for a conviction against Munro, who admitted he helped the Clareville teenager inject herself because she was not doing it correctly. Georgia died after overdosing on a cocktail of heroin and sleeping pills on October 9, 2005, while staying in a Narrabeen unit Munro shared with his brother. Munro denied he was to blame for Georgia's death in an interview with The Daily Telegraph three weeks after the overdose.

The inquest was terminated after the confessed heroin addict refused to answer questions from the witness box.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Breaking up the forensic science monopoly

Eight ways to fix a broken system

America's forensics system, the part of our criminal justice system responsible for scientific examinations of crime-scene evidence like fingerprints and DNA, is rife with errors. Some mistakes, like botched tests or erroneously interpreted results, are inevitable. But current error rates are needlessly high. The most recent comprehensive study of crime lab proficiency, published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1995, analyzed the tests administered by the Forensic Sciences Foundation and Collaborative Testing Services as a part of the accreditation process. For many forensic disciplines, including the analysis of fibers, paints, glass, and body fluid mixtures, the rate of incorrect matches between recovered evidence and a reference sample exceeded 10 percent.

The best-performing group of disciplines, which included "finger and palm prints, metals, firearms, and footwear," had error rates at or above 2 percent. The first item on that list is especially important: False fingerprint identification usually leads to a false conviction, because of the prestige of fingerprint evidence and its undeserved reputation for infallibility. With 238,135 requests for latent fingerprint comparisons in 2002 alone, a false positive error rate of 2 percent implies up to 4,800 false convictions or guilty pleas made in hopes of a lighter sentence each year in the U.S., 1,700 of them in felony cases. (The number of improperly matched fingerprints is not completely clear. A 2005 study of fingerprint analysis suggests that the false positive rate may now be as low as 0.8 percent. But another recent study suggests it could exceed 4 percent.)

Confronted with such statistics, policy makers usually call for greater oversight-that is, finding a governmental body to watch over forensics and make sure everyone does his or her job right. In the current climate, that certainly would help. But the core problem with modern forensics isn't an absence of oversight. It's monopoly. Once evidence goes to a given lab or facility, it is unlikely to be examined by any other lab or facility. That increases the chances that a mistake will slip through undetected. With the right reforms, we can break down that monopoly and create a working system of checks and balances. Here are eight steps to a better system:

1. Rivalrous redundancy. A jurisdiction should contain several competing forensic labs. To the extent that it's feasible, some evidence should be chosen at random for multiple testing at other labs. The same DNA evidence, for example, might be sent to three labs for analysis. The forensic scientist would not know when a given piece of evidence was being examined by another lab. For fingerprints, multiple examinations should be routine. If the rate of false positive fingerprint error is 2 percent, triplicate examinations would eliminate 96 percent of false felony convictions due to misidentified fingerprints.

2. Independence. Coroners and forensic scientists often have a pro-police bias, thinking of themselves as a part of the prosecution team. To establish their independence from police and prosecutors, crime labs should be organized by the courts, not the cops.

3. Statistical review. Statistical review would lead to improved quality control. For example, if a given lab produces an unusually large number of inconclusive findings, its procedures and practices should be examined by an officer of the court.

4. Masking. When conducting forensic analyses, coroners and forensic scientists should be shielded from what psychologists call "domain-irrelevant information." Knowing whether the case at hand is, for example, a murder or a burglary exposes a fingerprint examiner to a powerful unconscious bias: The emotional nature of a murder case tends to make the scientist eager to get a killer off the streets and more likely to declare a match. In a 2006 study by researchers at the University of Southampton, domain-irrelevant information doubled the error rate of experienced fingerprint examiners.

5. Forensic counsel for the indigent. Although forensic science decides many criminal cases, we do not have a right to forensic counsel similar to our right to legal counsel. Just as an indigent defendant has a right to the help of a qualified attorney, an indigent defendant should have the right to the help of a scientist qualified to interpret forensic analyses.

6. Forensic vouchers. An indigent suspect on trial should also have the right to select his own forensic counsel and use a government-issued voucher to pay for it. The forensic scientist who accepts the case would later redeem the voucher at the courthouse, receiving his paycheck from an officer of the court. Such a system would give forensic counselors to the poor an incentive to provide high-quality services.

7. Division of labor between forensic analysis and interpretation. A forensic scientist who conducts a blood test, for example, should not say whether the test excludes the suspect. The interpretation of the test should be made by other forensic scientists. When a lab report comes back, it should be transmitted to two forensic scientists-one representing the prosecution and one representing the defense-for interpretation. Combined with public funding of forensic experts for defendants who cannot afford them, this will make it less likely that errors of interpretation will go unchallenged.

8. Privatization. Private labs are subject to civil liability and administrative fines for poor performance. They therefore have stronger financial incentives than publicly owned enterprises to provide good and reliable work.

While those eight reforms would establish a system of competitive self-regulation, they are not an exhaustive description of good forensic practice. For example, labs should be accredited by groups such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors' Laboratory Accreditation Board, and they should have routine procedures to measure variables related to quality and a planned system of review to allow those procedures to be updated regularly.

These eight steps would also reduce the costs of the criminal justice system. The extra cost of multiple forensic tests is dwarfed by the savings associated with reduced jail time for the wrongly convicted. For example, the $100 cost of a fingerprint examination is one one-thousandth of the cost of incarcerating a wrongly convicted felon who has been given the average sentence of almost five years.

In Federalist No. 51, James Madison endorsed a "policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives," in order "to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other; that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." It is time to make the private interest of every coroner, every medical examiner, and every forensic scientist a sentinel over the public rights. r

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Britain: Supervision of freed criminals is a 'catastrophe'

The supervision of dangerous criminals in the community has been branded a "catastrophic failure" after it emerged that more are committing serious offences than ever before. Official figures showed that in the 12 months to April, 83 carried out further serious offences, including rape and murder, on their release from prison. This is compared to 61 in the previous year.

Twelve crimes were carried out by offenders assessed as being among the "critical few". These are around 1,200 people with the highest risk of harming the public who are meant to be under the most rigorous supervision.

Statistics from the Ministry of Justice covering England and Wales also showed a 30 per cent rise in the number of registered sex offenders charged or cautioned for breaching their notification requirements. These include keeping police informed when they move house

Serious criminals released from jail are covered by "multi-agency public protection arrangements" (Mappas). They bring together police, probation, social services and other agencies to supervise dangerous offenders once they are released from jail. Last year, they monitored 48,668 violent and sex offenders in England and Wales, up two per cent on the previous 12 months. This included 30,416 people on the sex offenders' register.

Opposition MPs said the figures showed the Government was failing in its first duty to protect the public. David Heath, the Liberal Democrats' justice spokesman, said: "This confirms that prison is clearly not discouraging these people from reoffending. "More resources need to be put into protective services at all levels to protect the public, not just those assessed to be the highest risk." Mr Heath added: "For even one offender to commit another serious offence while under supervision is unacceptable. For 83 to do so in a single year — a tenth of all the offenders released from prison — is a catastrophic failure."

Nick Herbert, the shadow justice secretary, said: ''When the system is so clearly failing to protect the public, it is extraordinary that the Government should be proposing to water down indeterminate sentences with the consequence that more high-risk offenders will be released on to our streets."

But Maria Eagle, the Justice Minister, said: "Protecting the public is of paramount importance to the Government." She added: "We have one of the most advanced systems in the world for monitoring and managing dangerous offenders. But we are not complacent and continue to look for ways to improve how we manage these offenders, and how best to support those responsible for the task locally." Miss Eagle said a new system called ViSOR (Violent and Sex Offender Register) had been introduced this month to tighten supervision. She said: "For the first time police, probation and prison services will be working on the same IT system, thus improving the quality and timeliness of risk assessments and interventions to prevent re-offending."

Officials said the proportion of offenders on Mappas who reoffend was very small though they acknowledged that more serious criminals were being reconvicted. Roger Hill, director of the Probation Service, said his staff's efforts to ensure that the protection of the public and reduce reoffending were "tireless", but added that there were "no easy solutions'

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The British "sleepwalking" myth

There is this strange upsurge of perfectly conscious behaviour in Britain that is being attributed to "sleepwalking". It's not a bad idea to establish your credentials as a sleepwalker in Britain. People have been acquitted of very serious crimes (e.g. here) after they said they were sleepwalking

A SURGE in naked sleepwalking among guests has led one of Britain's largest budget hotel groups to re-train staff to handle late-night nudity. Travelodge, which runs more than 300 business hotels in Britain, says sleepwalking rose seven-fold in the past year, and 95 per cent of guests are scantily clad men. "We have seen an increased number of cases over the years so it is important that our staff know how to help sleepwalking when it arises," Leigh McCarron, the chain's sleep director, said in a statement.

One tip in the company's newly released "sleepwalkers guide" tells staff to keep towels handy at the front desk in case a customer's dignity needs preserving. The company said naked wanderers often ask receptionists such questions as "Where's the bathroom," "Do you have a newspaper?" or "Can I check out, I'm late for work?"

Studies have found that sleepwalking can be brought on by stress, alcohol, eating cheese or consuming too much caffeine. It generally takes effect an hour or two after going to bed, when people are first slipping into a deep sleep. Asked Thursday why she thought 95 per cent of its sleepwalkers were naked men. A Travelodge spokeswoman said: "We have more men staying with us than women, so that could be a factor."

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unjust NY

A report released by the Innocence Project shows that New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing - but lags behind most other states in implementing policy reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions.

The 118-page report, titled "Lessons Not Learned," details 23 wrongful convictions in New York that have been overturned through DNA evidence, analyzes each case to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and outlines reforms that can improve the state's criminal justice system. "Every exoneration is a learning moment that can deepen our understanding of the criminal justice system's shortcomings and provide a roadmap for restoring integrity and confidence in the system," the report found. "Despite the large number of DNA exonerations - particularly since 2000 - and despite the fact that these 23 DNA exonerations are only the tip of the iceberg since so few cases involve DNA, New York has not learned the lessons of these exonerations and taken action to prevent future injustice."

Several of the reforms outlined in the report are currently awaiting action in the New York State Legislature, which failed to act on them earlier this year. They address the causes of wrongful convictions and provide mechanisms for wrongfully convicted people to prove their innocence (which also help identify the true perpetrators of crimes). "There is no doubt that wrongful convictions are a problem in New York, yet the legislative, executive and judicial branches have not implemented reforms that are proven to enhance the criminal justice system," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. "Many other states have begun to address and prevent wrongful convictions, and it's well past time for New York to take steps that can improve public safety and restore confidence in the criminal justice system."

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who earlier this year released a far-reaching analysis of the factors that went into the wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic for a 1989 Peekskill murder he did not commit, said the Innocence Project report underscored that the criminal justice system must embrace "the expectation of fairness." The report commissioned by DiFiore is included as an appendix in "Lessons Not Learned." "As prosecutors, our obligation is to vigorously search for the truth and aggressively prosecute the guilty, and the justification that gives us the moral, as well as the legal authority, to do so is that we just as vigorously protect the rights of the innocent," said DiFiore. The findings in "Lessons Not Learned, include:

In the last seven years, there has been a particularly high number of DNA exonerations in New York State. Since 2000, 17 wrongfully convicted people in New York have been exonerated with DNA evidence; seven of the 17 were wrongfully convicted of murder.

In 10 of New York's 23 DNA exonerations, the actual perpetrator was later identified.

In nine of those 10 cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went on to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison. According to law enforcement reports, five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults and one robbery at gunpoint were committed by the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were committed - and each of those crimes was committed after the wrongful arrest or conviction, so they could have been prevented if wrongful convictions had not happened.

Eyewitness misidentification played a role in 13 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned with DNA testing.

In 10 of the 23 cases in New York, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.

Limited or unreliable forensic science played a role in 10 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned through DNA evidence.

The report recommends that New York State's legislative, executive and judicial branches:

Ensure proper preservation, cataloguing and retention of biological evidence.

Avoid placing limits regarding when DNA can be retested to establish the innocence of the wrongfully convicted (or when other evidence of innocence can be introduced that could prove innocence post-conviction).

Enable defendants to obtain comparisons of crime scene evidence to forensic databases.

Require videotaping of custodial interrogations in their entirety.

Mandate implementation of eyewitness identification procedures that are proven to increase accuracy and minimize the likelihood of misidentifications.

Establish an independent commission to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and propose remedies to prevent them.

The report also outlines how New York stacks up against other states in implementing reforms to address and prevent wrongful convictions.
Six states - but not New York - have formed Innocence Commissions to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop remedies to prevent them. All but one of those states (Illinois) have far fewer wrongful convictions overturned through DNA than New York does.

22 states - but not New York - have statutes mandating the preservation of crime scene evidence. The 22 states with such laws include California, Florida, Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana and Kentucky.

33 states do not place time limits on when post-conviction DNA testing can be conducted to prove innocence. A proposal advanced in New York State earlier this year would impose time limits.

17 states - but not New York - considered legislation this year to improve eyewitness identification procedures. Bills passed in five states and made progress in seven others.

Nine states - but not New York - require at least some interrogations to be recorded (either through state statute or ruling of the state high court). In addition, more than 500 local jurisdictions record at least some interrogations. Even though more people have been exonerated by DNA after falsely confessing to crimes in New York than in any other state, only two of these 500 local jurisdictions are in New York State.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Corrupt BBC attacks innocent man

And not even an apology forthcoming

Just over a year ago the BBC produced a program from former Daily Record journalist and serial police hater Mark Daly. It alleged that one John Davidson obstructed the investigation into the Lawrence murder due to being corrupt. At the time, due to personal involvement in the case, I wrote a piece and asked Chris at Devils Kitchen to publish it anonymously. John Davidson, his family and I thank Chris for his co-operation in spreading the word so quickly in those dark days.

Following a complaint to the IPCC Davidson has been cleared (now for the fourth time) of corruption. And not only that but the BBC has been chastised for making a program that was so unbalanced in the first place.

In about an hour and a half I was able to put together the post that went up before the program was broadcast and dispelled all the allegations against Davidson. But yet the BBC persisted in this program because it was too attractive to them not to accuse a police officer of racism and corruption.

Following the program, and Yates allegation in it, Davidson instructed lawyers to contact the Met to request clarification of the point where it was claimed a serving DAC had seen proof of corruption. The last time I heard anything the deadline for a response to the lawyers had passed without reply. Indeed given the Met's response to the investigation it now seems that Yates is the only officer in the Met who holds this view. And given that he should now resign with immediate effect.

Be under no illusion, John Davidson's 2006 was one that should have been remembered as a time when he became a grandfather for the first time (twice) yet we will remember it as the time when the BBC broadcast falsehoods and worked his reputation over for little more than cheap ratings.

UPDATE: The original allegation received days of prominent headlines on both BBCi and on the main news bulletins despite them knowing it, as the Met told them, to be little more than a baseless allegation. Less than 24 hours after the report was published the story has went from main page side-bar to having fallen off the indexes of the website. Meantime the BBC could not devote any time in their Sunday evening reports on BBC 1 after Strictly Come Dancing to covering it while Five had an item (complete with shot of John's face) in the middle of their movie.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Britain: Brother and sister reunite after 70-years wrongful imprisonment

Seventy years locked up in institutions hardly seems to be a punishment that befits the crime of stealing half-a-crown. However, it is just such a fate that befell Jean Gambell when at the age of 15, in 1937, she was falsely accused of stealing 2s 6d (12.5p -- a quarter -- according to current conversion rate) from the doctor's surgery where she worked as a cleaner.

She was sectioned under the 1890 Lunacy Act and even though the money was later found, she has been moved from mental institution to mental institution. More recently, she went into a care home and has been lost to her family, who thought she was dead. But last month, by chance, her brother stumbled across correspondence which led to the discovery of her existence and the family was reunited.

Her brother David Gambell, 63, who still lives in his mother's old home in Merseyside, received a questionnaire addressed to his mother from Macclesfield Mews Care Home. "I thought it was just a survey for old people and I was about to throw it away when I saw Jean's name pencilled in on one corner," he said on Friday. "I couldn't believe it. I suddenly realised my sister was still alive. I rang the care home straight away and they confirmed our sister was there." He and his brother Alan, who had last seen their sister as small children when she was allowed to visit home with two wardens as guards, travelled to the Macclesfield home.

They were told by staff their 85-year-old sister was deaf, could only communicate in writing and was very unlikely to remember them. "A little old lady on walking sticks came in," said Alan. "She looked at us and cried out: 'Alan?...?David'. Then she put her arms around us. It was very emotional. "I am sure that what has kept her going all these years was the challenge of proving to the authorities she had a family. The trouble was, nobody would listen to her."

The brothers spent much of their childhood in orphanages because their parents were so poor. They said they had later discovered their father had tried for years to get Jean freed after she was put in Cranage Hall mental hospital in Macclesfield for being "of feeble mind", but was unsuccessful because her records had been mislaid. She spent years, lost in a maze of institutions and care homes, trying to convince people in authority she had a family. But nobody would believe her. Macclesfield Social Services are conducting an inquiry.

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Britain: No jail for vicious black

A man who punched a 96-year-old man, blinding him in one eye, has been spared jail. Croydon Crown Court was shown CCTV images (above) of Stephen Gordon, 44, punching Shah Chaudhury, who uses two walking sticks, after brushing against him in a tram travelling between Sandilands and east Croydon, in South London, last December. Judge Kenneth Macrae convicted Gordon, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, of causing grievous bodily harm to the Second World War veteran. He sentenced Gordon to a three-year supervision order, requiring him to receive psychiatric treatment.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Unaccountable judges

Comment by an experienced Canadian police officer

Courts are about testing. Testing the strength, the attributes, of a case. If a case is negligent, other players in the courtroom have a "duty of care" to expose all the flaws and poke holes in the character of the case. That's their job. But it doesn't always happen. Any judge, worth his or her salt, will admit that at times he or she has been dumbfounded by the questions that are not being asked by defence counsel. Questions that could neutralize the jeopardy of seemingly damning evidence. Questions that could coolly highlight investigative error. Questions that could stave off conviction and perhaps wrongful imprisonment. The high court's ruling ignored such negligence.

Further up the food chain there are the judges who decide things in a calm atmosphere during civilized hours.

A spotless investigation can still yield a weak case and so it is in sterile chambers, with time and supposed wisdom, that judges sit and among other things write out directions to juries, setting out the rules that must follow to determine innocence or guilt. Sometimes those instructions are dead wrong. Sometimes people are wrongly convicted and go to jail because of those directions. And sometimes years pass before the appeal that lands on the judge's negligent reasoning.

One innocent man in jail is one too many -- regardless of who is responsible. To take wrongful conviction inquiries beyond cheap, legal theatre the input of investigators, all counsel, the accused and the judge is needed. Maybe even the jury. And at the conclusion of an agenda-free inquiry there should be clear guidance as to where the negligence lies. An innocent man seeking justice needs to know everyone who's at fault for facilitating the circumstances that allowed him to rot in jail for something he didn't do.

But predictably, the only people covered in the ruling are the police. The grunts, the low rung on the ladder. The Supreme Court is not likely to ever hold judges to similar account because unlike the police, who the court says shouldn't be concerned by the threat of a civil suit, the judiciary's independence would surely somehow be compromised by the same standard. And that will ensure full accountability remains that elusive goal of justice.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Canada: Mullins-Johnson finally cleared

But a huge stain on forensic science remains. How many more pathologists like Charles Smith are out there?

An emotional and relieved William Mullins-Johnson said "I finally have my name back," after the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed he was wrongly convicted of murder in the death of his four-year-old niece in 1994. "It was worse than a scarlet letter," said Mullins-Johnson about the 12 years he spent in prison. A three-judge panel entered an acquittal yesterday after the Crown conceded his first-degree murder conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

Mullins-Johnson, 37, was found guilty in the 1993 death of his four-year-old niece Valin Johnson, whom he had been babysitting. He has been free on bail since September 2005, after the provincial coroner's office ordered a review of the findings of controversial pathologist Dr. Charles Smith in a number of criminal proceedings. Smith now lives in Saanich.

The doctor who conducted the original autopsy of the girl said there was no evidence of a recent sexual assault the night she died. Smith contradicted this and stated Valin had been sexually assaulted within 45 minutes of death. The review conducted by Dr. Michael Pollanen, chief forensic pathologist in Ontario, concluded that Smith made a number of errors. "There was no evidence of sexual injuries in this case," Pollanen testified yesterday.

He agreed with a suggestion by Crown attorney Michal Fairburn that Valin died "inexplicably" and was not a victim of a homicide. The girl's death is one of more than a dozen criminal cases since the early 1990s where Smith was found to have made errors and which will be the subject of an upcoming judicial inquiry.

Justice Dennis O'Connor told Mullins-Johnson yesterday that it was "regrettable" he had spent so long in custody because of "flawed" pathological evidence.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Britain: Only two years for murder gang

They should have been sent to jail until they were 30. They might have grown up by then

Five boys who stoned a pensioner to death as he played cricket with his son were yesterday each sentenced to two years. The boys, aged 12 to 14 and said to have come from good families, were described by an Old Bailey judge as cowardly and disgraceful. The youngsters had been part of a gang that surrounded Ernest Norton, 67, as he played cricked with his son James, 17, in February last year at Erith leisure centre in Kent. The gang shouted abuse and spat, then hurled sticks and stones at Mr Norton. Two of the stones, one the size of a brick, hit Mr Norton on the temple and fractured his cheekbone. As he collapsed with a heart attack they ran away.

The boys, the youngest of whom was aged only 10 at the time, were convicted in August of manslaughter and violent disorder. During the trial Mr Norton’s son had told the court how the gang attacked without provocation and shouted at Mr Norton: “Go back to the old people’s home.” Sending them to youth detention yesterday, Judge Warwick McKinnon said: “This was a vicious, entirely unprovoked and sustained group attack involving a barrage of missiles.” Before the attack the boys had been running amok at the leisure centre, smashing windows and looking for a fight with a rival gang.

“You had each hyped yourselves up by your earlier rowdy mischief and misbehaviour before you attacked the most unfortunate Ernest Norton – he was entirely innocent,” Judge McKinnon said. “First you abused him and his son, then spat at him and then launched a barrage of missiles at him.” The boys were “cowardly” for fleeing when a large stone hit Mr Norton, the judge said. “He suffered a heart attack and died – all this before the eyes of his son, who had to watch his father die in these dreadful circumstances,” Judge McKinnon said. “The conduct of all of you as a group was utterly disgraceful and criminally irresponsible.”

Mr Norton’s, wife, Linda, had come running from the gym to cradle her husband as he lay dying. She was at court with her two children and granddaughter. In a victim impact statement, she said that she had known her husband for almost 40 years. They had married in 1975. “In 2006 life was flowing along lovely, everything was normal and you think it will never change,” she said. “Then bang, your life is turned upside down and you have to run on automatic. “Ernie’s death has affected our lives in so many ways, we are still trying to be normal and enjoy ourselves again but I don’t think I ever will.”

She said: “When I see other couples out, especially older couples, I think to myself, ‘They are together, why aren’t we?’ “I miss Ernie just not being there, we did most things together. He was always there for me in every way imaginable. He was a kind-hearted man who looked after his family and friends.” She said of her son: “He lost his role model at such an important time of his life. “To put things simply, the house is just empty without Ernie and life will never be the same again.”

The court was told that the youngest of the attackers had thrown five of the stones. The 10-year-old boy was described as coming from a broken family and just following the others, one of whom was his elder brother. But their mother was described as being a competent parent. Another boy was described as having no family problems, and one was said to have a low IQ but to come from a supportive family. And the fifth, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, came from “a close knit and supportive family” that had shown him right from wrong. The boys hugged their parents and some were crying as they were taken away.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


For the nearly 20 years I have lived and worked in New York City, one of my biggest pet peeves has been the double standard by which parking regulations are enforced-and for most of those years, I didn't even own a car. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate a sidewalk near a police precinct knows what I'm talking about. Cops feel their badge is a license to park their cars wherever they want, on-duty or off-duty. Middle of the sidewalk, no problem. Blocking an intersection, no problem. Blocking a fire hydrant, no problem.

Firefighters and bureaucrats from other city agencies are just as bad about flouting the law, and the police do nothing about it. All these government employees have "permits" inside their windshields that exempt them from certain parking regulations under limited circumstances, but the permits are widely abused to break the law outright. It is never legal, for example, to block a fire hydrant, regardless of any permit in the windshield. If you or I tried parking in front of a hydrant for just a minute while running into a drycleaner, the tow truck would be there before you got your change.

The response of average New Yorkers to this double standard has been to grumble and shrug. It's one of those only-in-New-York problems that "you can't do anything about," like squeegee men at the tunnels used to be. All that is slowly changing with the recent launch of, the muckraking website from Transportation Alernatives. Truth be told, there is little else on the Transportation Alternatives agenda I agree with, but for this project I think they deserve one of those McArthur genius grants.

The format of is all very Web 2.0. The site relies on a community of volunteers to spot government employees violating parking regulations, take a digital photo, and upload the evidence. With dozens of new posts each day, is a testament both to the power of virtual communities and the pervasiveness of the scofflaw mentality among New York's Finest, Bravest, Strongest, Boldest and other dubious superlatives.

One of the website's most worthwhile achievements has been simply to set the record straight on just what privileges actually come with one of those official parking permits. The system has been abused for so long and so widely that many ordinary New Yorkers erroneously believe that the police may legally park wherever they wish. As explains, the official rules regarding parking permits may seem complex at first, but they really boil down to some commonsense (by government standards) guidelines:

1. "Is the vehicle creating a safety hazard? Unless they are responding to an active emergency, no one can park on a sidewalk, in front of a fire hydrant, in a bus stop, crosswalk, intersection, or bike lane.

2. "Is the vehicle parked in a No Permit Zone? Permits are not valid in these areas, though these are often the areas with the highest concentration of permit users and abusers.

3. "If the vehicle is not parked in one of the above situations, check to see if the permit is legal in NYC . . . While some statewide union-issued permits are legal in other cities, they are not allowed on the streets of NYC. This includes Court Officers, Court Clerks, Corrections, and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, among others.

4. "If they are using a valid permit, are they allowed to use it where they are parked (i.e. in the right location on the street, in accordance with the street signage, etc.)? DOT Disability permits are the most permissive permits, though there are still places they can't park. Law Enforcement permits are the next most permissive. Most of the rest of the permits have strict restrictions."

The site includes a handy quick-reference chart that can help you quickly figure out which permits allow parking in which areas. To be fair, not all of the permit abuse is perpetrated by government employees, although they are by far the most egregious offenders. Spend just a few minutes scrolling through the recent posts on, and you'll see a fair share of Press, Clergy and Doctor permits being used to scam illegal parking spots, often with the same car parked in the same illegal spot for days on end.

The genesis of was a recent comprehensive report by Transportation Alternatives, entitled "Above the Law: A Study of Government Parking Permit Abuse in New York City." The report found that "citywide more than 3 out of every 4 permit holders (77%) used their permits illegally."

Not surprisingly, the police are the worst at breaking the law they get paid to uphold. Cops are responsible for 46% of all permit abuse, according to the Transportation Alternatives study, by far the most of any city agency. Lest anyone think this is just anti-cop liberal bias, the NYPD's own data are just as damning. In a July 2006 analysis of the Park Row street closure around One Police Plaza, the NYPD identified "1,217 cars parked illegally [around police headquarters] . . . Of those, 1,012 were private commuter vehicles with city-issued permits." Other highlights of the Transportation Alternatives report:

"Of valid permits used illegally at the curbside (i.e. illegally parking at signs with riders forbidding that particular permit's usage), the NYPD was responsible for 63% of the abuse.

"Of the 369 total citywide violations in [the] study that caused safety hazards, there were 212 permit holders on sidewalks, 46 blocking fire hydrants, 23 in crosswalks, 22 in bus stops, 8 in intersections, and 10 in bike lanes. The NYPD led the way with 61% of the total abuses.

"The NYPD were the leading abusers of permits using up meters, with 28% of the total.

Court Officers were responsible for the majority of fraudulent permits with 54% of the total, followed by Corrections, Court Clerks, and FDNY. This was in large part due to the proliferation of union-issued permits for these agencies, which are not legal on New York City streets."

All told, Transportation Alternatives estimates there about 150,000 "valid" permits in vehicles around the city (almost half of which are used illegally at any given time), and untold thousands of other illegal photocopies or outright forgeries. With so many targets out there, it's not surprising the user community is able to update the site so frequently with new outrages.

Of course, not everyone who posts to the website is a fan of the project. It also attracts a lot of cops who are livid that any of the serfs have the temerity to question their privileged status. It's never smart to provoke a cop-deservedly or not-in person, but on the web it can be great fun to watch them froth with rage.

One of the most frequent users is someone who identifies himself as "bklyncop1." I swear if you look closely at his posts, you can feel his saliva spraying through your computer monitor. In one post that was quoted in the New York Times, bklyncop1 wrote, "I understand you all feel like we take advantage, but look past the parking issue and look at the bright side . . . You wouldn't be on this site without the N.Y.P.D. protecting your lives and property. God bless America and God bless the N.Y.P.D.!!!"

Another retired cop posting on the site was even more blunt about both his sense of privilege and his regard for those who pay his pension (quoted verbatim):

"I have no intentions of ever parking legally whenever I am in NYC. It is a perk that has been in standard practice since the end of time. It is not the officer's fault that the NYPD does not supply enough legal parking for its workers. Where are the garages? This is the main reason police officers are given the parking plaques in the first place. I put my life on the line for the ungreatful scum of this city and this is how they repay us. Screw you and your whining, I put up with this for over 20 yrs and now I am owed a certain perk. Yes, I am retired 2 yrs and yes I have a current parking plaque. I answer to no one now that I am retired and thanks to the brotherhood of blue I am assured that I can park anywhere I want with impunity. Every cop in the city is on the same page. We do not summons our own. Take as many pictures of my auto as you like because I answer to no one. God bless retirement and godbless the NYPD!"

To their credit, not everyone in the police department is so defiant, at least on the record. Whether due to heat generated by or a rare streak of moral responsibility, at least one commanding officer is cracking down on permit abuse under his watch., another site dedicated to NYC traffic issues, recently reported that Deputy Inspector Gin Yee, commanding officer of the 5th Precinct in Chinatown, has actually started towing away illegally parked cars near the stationhouse, permits be damned.

However, other cops remain unrepentant. As of this writing, the top post on is from bklyncop1, who reiterates: "I've stated a lot of times that people who post pictures on this site are either Cop haters or just jealous."

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dr Crippen was innocent, say scientists

It was sensational stuff that riveted a nation: A mild-mannered American doctor poisons then dismembers his unfaithful wife, flees England in disguise with his mistress - and is caught, tried and hanged. The problem is that the poisoned corpse that sent Dr Hawley Crippen to the gallows in London in 1910 was not that of his wife, according to new evidence found by US researchers.

A team led by John Trestrail, head of the regional poison centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan, took mitochondrial DNA - genetic material passed on through the mother - from a tissue sample from the corpse kept in a London museum. They then compared it with samples from three of Cora Crippen's female descendants, found after a seven-year search. "That body was not Cora Crippen's," said David Foran, a forensic biologist at Michigan State University. "We don't know who that body was or how it got there."

Crippen, a struggling doctor who moved to England with his showgirl wife, was convicted of poisoning her with an obscure toxin and then burying her dismembered body under their north London home.

Police nabbed Crippen and his mistress on a trans-Atlantic ship as it entered Canadian waters. The captain had recognised the doctor from newspapers and become suspicious of his companion, disguised as a man, and famously used the newly invented wireless telegraph to alert the British police.

"The thing about the Crippen case is the mutilation, which is contradictory to what poisoners do," said Mr Trestrail, whose books on poisons are used by detectives across the world. "They want a 'natural death' certificate, and to walk away." Police found the remains with no head, no bones and no genitals. The grisly revelation shocked the public, spurring newspapers to describe Crippen as "one of the most dangerous and remarkable men who have lived this century". Throughout the trial and all the way to the gallows, he insisted that he was innocent and the body not that of his wife.

But his flight, and the contradictory accounts he gave of his wife's disappearance, did him no favours. The final nail in his coffin was evidence of a scar on the body, which convinced the jury that it was Cora's, an inference that the researchers now say was almost certainly wrong. But they concede that other evidence clearly shows that the body could only have made its way to Crippen's house when he and his wife were living there.

Mr Trestrail speculates that Crippen might have been performing illegal abortions and that the body could have resulted from a procedure that went horribly wrong. There are also clues suggesting that Cora Crippen slipped out of England with a new man and settled in the United States. "The two questions are 'Where did she go?' and 'Whose remains are they?'," Mr Trestrail said. "But that is another investigation and trial."

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Australia: Amazing child rape sentence

QUEENSLANDERS have reacted angrily to the sentence given to a teacher who raped a 13-year-old student, describing the 12 months he will spend in jail as a "slap on the wrist".

Warren David Schneider, 39, abused four girls in Years 8 and 9 during a 15-month period in the photographic room, classrooms and storage closets at a high school south of Brisbane between 2000 and 2002.

He pleaded guilty in Brisbane District Court to three counts of rape, one count of maintaining a sexual relationship with a child, seven counts of indecent treatment of a child under 16 under care and one count of indecent treatment of a child aged under 16.

Justice Michael Shanahan on Friday jailed Schneider for five years, to serve 12 months, after considering the five months the former teacher had already spent in custody and his attempts at rehabilitation. Premier Anna Bligh has asked Attorney-General Kerry Shine to investigate appealing the sentence.

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Sleepy British police facilitate multiple rapes

Follow-up to a report here on Sept., 19th.

A serial sex offender who raped two 15-year-old girls after police failed to link his DNA to earlier offences was jailed for life yesterday. Victims' groups and women's rights campaigners criticised the police blunders that allowed Mark Campbell, once dubbed the "Thursday rapist", to evade justice for four years after he was first arrested. During that time Campbell, 38, from Chichester, West Sussex, raped the teenagers and carried out several other sex attacks, as well as two burglaries.

Sussex police took a DNA sample from Campbell in October 2002, after he was arrested in a woman's garden on suspicion of being a "peeping Tom". However, the samples were not sent away for analysis until September 2006, when Campbell's swabs were found to match those taken from some of his victims.

The father-of-two sobbed yesterday as he was convicted of a six-year campaign of offences against women in Sussex. Judge William Wood, QC, told Campbell that he would serve at least ten years in prison. "It is difficult to exaggerate the degree of harm done," the judge said, adding that many of the victims would be "looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives".

Campbell first struck in February 1998, when he assaulted a 27-year-old woman in her home while her three young children slept upstairs. A year later he falsely imprisoned a 12-year-old girl and indecently assaulted a 15-year-old. In May 2000 he raped a 21-year-old woman, after which police began a manhunt.

Officers carried out a mass DNA screening of local men, but Campbell did not fall into their target group - partly because his home was half a mile outside the area where detectives believed that the rapist was living. When he was finally tested his sample was placed in a freezer but was never sent away for analysis.

Two years later, in August 2004, he raped two 15-year-old girls in the back of his van. A month before that, he had sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl while her younger sister slept in the same double bed.

In September 2006 a cold case review discovered the untested DNA and it was analysed. Jeremy Paine, assistant chief constable of Sussex Police, said that there were "no excuses" for the four-year delay in catching Campbell. "It should not have happened and we are very sorry that it did," he said. "We have done everything we can to learn the lessons so that nothing like it can happen again."

A police spokesman said that changes to the law surrounding DNA samples, as well as new procedures, would prevent the error being repeated. He said that one senior officer and one member of police staff, whom he refused to name, had received formal words of advice.

Women's campaigners condemned the police response as inadequate. Ruth Hall, of Women Against Rape, called for those responsible to be sacked. "Not just the one officer who didn't send off the sample, but those who are responsible for closing the inquiry down . . . and not ensuring that there were regular checks made, and an open mind kept. They left women defenceless against this man. "We have had inquiry after inquiry, law change after law change, and nothing ever happens, because until these people are held accountable, nobody takes it seriously."

Maggie Ellis, director of Chichester's Life Centre, which offers counselling and support to victims of sexual violence, described the DNA oversight as "a human error with disastrous consequences". Campbell was found guilty of 13 offences between 1998 and 2004, and acquitted of one count of indecent assault and one count of sexual assault. Police believe he may have struck several more times, beginning as early as 1995.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lazy Australian police ignore a murder

Getting police to investigate ANYTHING (unless you start smoking in a bar, or criticize homosexuality, of course) is an uphill battle in both Australia and Britain these days. Only constant pressure from relatives in this case finally got justice

It was a beautiful summer's evening and the moon was up. Too beautiful to be identifying bodies at the Glebe Morgue. About 10 pm on Sunday, January 9, 2000, Alan Urwin and his wife, Margaret, cigarettes in hand, stood at the back entrance of the morgue. They were still in shock after identifying Margaret's sister and brother-in-law, Pam, 50, and Bill Weightman, 51, who had been killed in a car accident earlier that day. As they stood bewildered in the laneway, Mr Urwin remarked that the Weightmans looked like they'd been in a fight rather than a car accident. "Pam's hair was matted," he said, "and Bill looked as though he'd been punched in the mouth and the eye."

Just before 10am a park ranger had found their car down an embankment off Pipeline Road, which runs off Heathcote Road, near Heathcote in Sydney's south. According to post-mortems which were conducted on the Monday morning, Mr Weightman had been found squashed under the steering wheel, not wearing a seat belt. He had a number of bruises on his arms and legs. Mrs Weightman was sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle held up by her seatbelt with her head resting against the front passenger window.

"There were no skid marks on the road approaching the embankment and no damage to the guard rail before the entrance," recorded a forensic pathologist, Dr Allan Cala. He also said: "There was minor damage to the front of the vehicle but otherwise the vehicle appeared intact." While noting extensive bruising on Mrs Weightman's arms, as well as Mr Weightman's legs and arms, fractures in the bones of his neck and traces of sleeping tablets in both, Dr Cala concluded there "was no positive evidence to indicate foul play at this point in time".

The Urwins had been called to identify the bodies because police had been unable to locate the Weightmans' only child, David, 20, who lived with his adoptive parents in Glen Alpine in Sydney's south-west. At 3am on that Monday, the Urwins finally tracked down their nephew at a friend's house. Mrs Urwin was sobbing as she tried to tell Weightman that his parents were dead. But she received no response. As she recalled: "He sort of shrugged his shoulders and then Richard [Rehfeldt], one of his friends, put his arm around him and said, 'Are you all right, mate?'."

Weightman went home with his aunt and uncle. They found it odd that he didn't ask for any details about his parents' death. He knocked back a couple of whiskies and went to bed. At nine he rose asking for tea and toast. Later that day, he put his parents' house on the market. "He finds out at 3am his parents are dead. By two o'clock that same afternoon their house is up for sale," Mr Urwin said.

Later that afternoon, when the Urwins went round to the Weightmans' house, they noticed Mrs Weightman's jewellery, including her wedding ring, sitting by a computer. "She wouldn't go out without her wedding ring," Mrs Urwin said . Making them more concerned was that their beds had not been slept in.

Having viewed the accident scene, the Urwins were completely puzzled. Why would the Weightmans be driving in the Heathcote National Park, a long way from their home, late on a Saturday night or in the early hours of Sunday morning? And how had the accident happened given there were no skid marks? "I'm just a humble boilermaker, with no training of any detective work, but it looked wrong to me," Mr Urwin said.

The following day the Urwins went to the police to air their suspicions that their nephew had played a part in his parents' death. In her statement to police on January 11, Mrs Urwin said: "The accident all appears very strange to me, as I cannot imagine why they were on Heathcote Road, or how the accident could have possibly occurred." The police did not agree, telling the Urwins that the deaths were suspected to be suicide.

Mrs Urwin had trouble coping after the funeral. Her weight fell to 40 kilograms. A grief counsellor at Glebe Coroner's Court arranged a meeting with Dr Cala in April. The Urwins pointed out that Mrs Weightman's injuries appeared greater than her husband's, her hair was matted, every toe was bruised and yet it was Mr Weightman who wasn't wearing a seat belt.

Mr Urwin: "I said to Dr Cala, 'I feel a bit awkward saying this but I honestly feel that Pam and Bill were murdered and that David murdered them."' Mr Urwin recalled Dr Cala laughing, saying: "No, you're becoming paranoid. I can assure you that the bruising is consistent with the motor vehicle going down the embankment." The pair left feeling they had no alternative but to accept Dr Cala's explanation.

Not long after, Mr Urwin gave a copy of Dr Cala's report to a clerical worker in the police force to photocopy for him. "She came back and said, 'I think this couple was murdered and I think you should go to the police . I'm telling you he murdered them and he'll be coming after you and your family."' Mr Urwin kept pestering the police with his murder theories.

In mid-2001 Dr Cala was asked to review the case. He discovered he had made an "incredible error", as he later told a misconduct inquiry. When he concluded Mrs Weightman died of massive head injuries, he had been looking at someone else's brain. He claimed he had immediately contacted the coroner.

Other people went to the Campbelltown police with tales of Weightman boasting to friends that he had got away with his parents' murder, but still nothing happened.

The Urwins bought the house from Weightman after an unsuccessful marketing campaign. He went through $500,000 in two years on drugs, motorbikes and overseas travel. But the Urwins were always on his case, pestering him for details about his parents' deaths . Finally, in February 2004, four years after their death, Weightman admitted that he and a friend, Terry Donai, had killed them. He later admitted doing it because they would not let him buy a motorbike. "The motorbike," he said, "was the icing on the cake."

Weightman pleaded guilty and got a lighter sentence by lying to psychiatrists about hearing voices at the time of the murders. He also received a discount on his sentence for agreeing to give evidence against Donai.

This time the police did swing into action. Weightman's confession was suppressed and an undercover investigation was mounted. It took another two years for Donai to be arrested after confessing to an undercover police operative that he had helped dispose of the bodies. Later last year, a complaint by the Urwins led to Dr Cala being found guilty of professional misconduct over his handling of the case, although the Health Care Complaints Commission issued a suppression order on the case. It was lifted in June this year.

The Professional Standards Committee found that while Dr Cala had made a significant mistake, he was not alone in the bungling. "It was the Urwins' persistence, not police activity, that changed the outcome of the case."

Yesterday a jury found Donai guilty of the couple's murder, but that verdict has still not brought closure for the Urwins. "Why can't the police apologise to my wife and I?" Mr Urwin demanded. "When I left England in 1975 I thought I was coming to a First World country. Instead I've found a Third World police force." Why, he asked, "is the work of citizens to investigate the deaths of their relatives? . If it was not for my wife and I, two murderers would be in society today."

In a statement police yesterday acknowledged "errors in the original investigation". "Since then NSW Police has made significant changes to callout procedures for the Crash Investigation Unit and the management of crime scenes," the statement said.

Mr Urwin also said the Police Commissioner's office became involved in the court case against Donai to prevent the release of information about police operations. NSW police said legal advice showed complainants were not legally entitled to copies of the investigator's report or the Internal Review Panel papers.

A call by the Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, for a full inquiry into the case has been dismissed by the Premier, Morris Iemma. In a letter to Mr O'Farrell, Mr Iemma wrote: "As the failings that occurred during the initial investigation have been acknowledged and addressed through numerous processes, I do not believe there would be any new information to be gained from another inquiry."

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Britain's paper police

THE southwest London suburb where I have lived for 17 years is what estate agents like to call an "exclusive oasis". Over the years it's been relatively crime-free and neighbourly. But lately "Barnes Village", like so many other communities, has proved it is not immune from the violence that besets modern Britain. A little more than a week ago I discovered just how dangerous it can be - and just how little the police are willing to do about it.


It was 11.30pm and we were on our way home, following a Ford Galaxy, when it stopped in the middle of our road, as is the habit in suburban London where parking is hard to find. There was actually a parking space opposite, but the occupants, a man and woman, sat chatting. Had it not been so late and the houses around in darkness, one would have given them a pip on the horn to move on.

We tried to squeeze past, but could not make it. So we sat in rising irritation as they ignored us. After a while he kissed her, got a bag out of the back and, instead of a gesture of apology or the usual raised hand of thanks, he looked at us with contempt.

We eventually found a place to park near our house. On a whim, I wandered back up the road. Perhaps I should have thought better of it, but I wanted to make a note of where this rude man, whom I had never seen before, lived.

To my surprise he was standing outside his open front door. "Next time, show some courtesy to your neighbours and have the decency to pull over," I said. It was, I admit, not gentle. It was not a request. It was the righteous demand of middle-aged, middle England wearing a suit and tie and wanting to get home after a long day. But it didn't deserve what followed.

He moved forward two steps, his right hand taking off his glasses and returning, unseen by me, as a sledgehammer blow on my right cheek. I was so stunned I didn't move. The follow-through, a second later, took my legs away.

I was still conscious, thank God, as he started kicking me as hard as he could. I knew I had to get up or I could be crippled, but as I rose he punched me down again. More kicks. I rose again and was punched down again. On the third attempt I got to my feet. He had stopped and was now in the road where his girlfriend's car had returned. I made a note of the house number and hurried away as best I could. The quiet tree-lined road of slumbering parents and children was deserted.

A police Tactical Response Unit came in about 10 minutes, asked a few questions, told me to go to hospital, but first to identify the house. It was in darkness. "We'll be back later, and if we are longer it's because we have made an arrest," the police constable told me. My assailant had had the good sense either to clear off or had turned out all the lights.
I apologised for my stupidity and recklessness in confronting a man late at night, although even today I would struggle to believe that the owner of a œ750,000 home in a quiet suburban neighbourhood would unleash such a violent attack. "Nobody deserves what happened to you," the constable said reassuringly. "If you see him, call the police, but don't confront him."


This evening the girlfriend's Ford was in the road and the house was ablaze with lights. My assailant certainly wasn't hiding now. I called the police, gave them the car's registration number, told them someone was home and was told to wait. At 10.30pm the constable called - he was back on duty, but their evening calls were already mounting up. "I am not the investigating officer, but if I get time I'll give him a knock," he said.

I gave him the names of the people listed at the address to see if they coincided with the registered owner of the vehicle. "Where did you obtain this information?" I pointed out that it was publicly available. What was the the police response? "I am warning you that you may be committing an offence under the Data Protection Act," he said.


In the morning I saw the girlfriend in the street and she drove past me. I assumed the police would soon be making inquiries - they had an address, a name, and my account of the attack. But I heard nothing.


Having still heard nothing, I rang the police and spoke to a woman on the Crime Management Unit switchboard. She told me my case had not yet been transferred onto the correct computer system by the constable - and he was now off-duty for five days. She said she was transferring the incident to the Beat Crime Unit in Teddington, Middlesex; a sergeant, who was in charge there, would allocate it in a day or so.


A friend called to tell me that his nephew, at university in sleepy Eastbourne, had been beaten up together with his housemates by a gang wielding knives who lived nearby. "They called the police, but they haven't done anything," he said. Still no word about my own incident.


I called the police again to inquire about progress - but now the sergeant was off-duty. Instead a detective constable said he would check the entry on the computer. I was beginning to wonder whether they would ever do anything. "You are in CID," I said. "We have a crime where we know where the suspect lives, and he appears to be living there openly - this must be the easiest crime in the world to clear up. And yet nothing seems to have been done."

You could almost hear the paperwork being pushed around. The detective replied: "The officers have got quite heavy workloads and there are other crimes that are equally easy to clear up, but they just mount up." That evening the TV news highlighted a report critical of the Metropolitan police for failing to act when a young father was attacked by a gang he had confronted; the gang eventually returned to kill him.


Still no word from the police, no sign that my attacker will face any investigation. All my journalistic life I have worked with the police; as a result I have friends in the force and even belong to a Metropolitan Police recreational club. I know it can be a tough and dangerous job. But I also know many have retired in their mid or late forties on full pensions. Many others have left because "the job has become about filling in forms". It's so bad that last week Sir Ian Blair, the Met's commissioner, called for a "bonfire" of police paperwork and a return to the era portrayed in the TV series Life on Mars when justice was "quick and straightforward".

These days it's so slow I have still heard nothing from the police; my attacker is seemingly immune to prosecution; and surprisingly I have had no fewer than three offers from professional, middle-class friends to use someone they know who "sorts out problems like this". I do - did - believe in the police because the consequences of indulging in "citizen justice" are too terrifying to contemplate. But increasingly I am told by conservative, law-abiding people: "You can't rely on the police any more - they're useless."

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The disgraceful Jason Hill case was at least a catalyst for reform

THE CANADIAN ASSOCIATION of Chiefs of Police won support from the federal and provincial attorneys general last fall when they opposed allowing persons who are wrongfully convicted to sue police alleging that they were victims of negligent investigations. Part of their argument, which was accepted by three Supreme Court of Canada judges, was that it would open the floodgates, with countless lawsuits being launched by persons acquitted of heinous crimes.

Thankfully, that postulation was rejected by six of the nine judges. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said the record provided "no basis for concluding that there will be a flood of litigation against the police if a duty of care is recognized," and at one point cited the contrary example of O. J. Simpson. Cleared of murder charges by a jury that had reasonable doubt as to his guilt, he was sued civilly by the victims' families, held liable for their "wrongful death," and ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages.

The court's decision, released last Thursday, was itself an illustration of how difficult it can be to establish that police negligence, rather than what the Chief Justice described in the case at bar as "an unfortunate series of events," was responsible for a wrongful conviction.

In the case that brought the issue to Canada's top court for a first time, Jason Hill found himself charged by Hamilton- Wentworth Regional Police with a string of 10 robberies in December 1994 and January 1995 attributed to "the plastic bag robber." Acting on a Crime Stoppers tip and eyewitnesses' description of the culprit, police arrested Mr. Hill, included the aboriginal in a photo lineup with similar-looking caucasians, and ultimately charged him with 10 counts of robbery.

Although two similar robberies occurred while Mr. Hill was in custody, he was ultimately tried on a single charge where two bank tellers were the key Crown witnesses. Found guilty, he won an appeal based on errors by the trial judge, and at the second trial was found not guilty, having by then spent a total of 20 months in jail. Meanwhile, police had arrested another suspect who looked remarkably like Mr. Hill, and ultimately was found responsible for the robberies.

Only time will tell how much the new 'tort' will be used, let alone whether the plaintiffs will be successful. And we'll never know whether the likes of Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard would have been able to use it successfully. Until now, the wrongfully convicted have had some other potential remedies, such as the torts of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and misfeasance in public office, but all carry a heavy burden of proof and are at least as hard to establish as medical malpractice.

In the majority judgment, Chief Justice McLachlin acknowledged that police have a duty to investigate crime and that in the vast majority of cases they carry out the duty with diligence and care. "Occasionally, however, mistakes are made. These mistakes may have drastic consequences. An innocent suspect may be investigated, arrested and imprisoned because of negligence in the course of a police investigation."

The issues raised by the case were whether police may be held liable if their conduct during the course of an investigation falls below an acceptable standard and results in harm to a suspect, and if so, what standard should be used to assess the conduct of the police. "More generally," the Chief Justice wrote, "is police conduct during the course of an investigation or arrest subject to scrutiny under the law of negligence at all, or should police be immune on public policy grounds from liability under the law of negligence?"

Concluding that police are not immune from liability under the Canadian law of negligence; that they owe a duty of care in negligence to suspects being investigated, and that their conduct during the course of an investigation should be measured against the standard of how a reasonable officer in like circumstances would have acted, she agreed with the trial judge in the Hill case and the Ontario Court of Appeal that the tort of negligent investigation does indeed exist. However, she cautioned that the law of negligence "does not demand a perfect investigation. It requires only that police conducting an investigation act reasonably. When police fail to meet the standard of reasonableness, they may be accountable through negligence law for harm resulting to a suspect."

That strikes us as appropriate, and we hope the Chief Justice is right in predicting that the only consequence of the ruling will be more careful police investigations. For instance, it should mean that when the best evidence is from eyewitnesses, police investigators should resist the temptation to concentrate the probe on a single suspect who happens to fit the description, and should look closely at any exculpatory evidence such as an alibi or inconsistent results from a photo lineup. True, the decision may make police work tougher, but it should also reduce the risk of wrongful convictions.

Chief Justice McLachlin says the police officer's task will be to "strike a reasonable balance between cautiousness and prudence on the one hand, and efficiency on the other. Files must be closed, life must move on, but care must also be taken." All the tort requires, she wrote, "is that the police act reasonably in the circumstances."

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More background

A wrongly convicted Ontario man who established a legal principle for much of Canada but failed to win damages from police is asking the province to compensate him voluntarily for his 1995 arrest and 20 months he spent in jail.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal by Jason Hill, who sued Hamilton police, claiming they acted maliciously and negligently in fingering him for a series of bank robberies.

In its 6-3 ruling, however, the court said police can be sued for negligent investigations. That ruling upholds the law already in place in Ontario and Quebec, but will mean a change for the rest of the country. "The police are not immune from liability under the law of negligence and the tort of negligent investigation exists in Canada," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the ruling. "Police officers owe a duty of care to suspects."

Unfortunately for Hill, the top court upheld lower-court judgments that said the Hamilton investigation did not cross the line. "In this case, the police officers' conduct, considered in light of police practices at the time, meets the standard of a reasonable officer in similar circumstances," the ruling said. [It was not negligent to make him stand out like a sore thumb in a police lineup??? The witnesses were looking for a native guy and he was the only native guy there! I would have called it malice aforethought]

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Australia: Muslim pedophile verdict to be appealed

What was the scum doing in bed with an 11-year-old boy if he is not a pedophile?

THE Director of Public Prosecutions has been ordered to appeal the sentence given to a medical student, who walked free from court after pleading guilty to attempting to indecently assault an 11-year-old boy. Shakeel Mirza, 26, was given 12-months probation and had no conviction recorded, after admitting to attempting to "massage the boy's penis".

The District Court was told the offence came about as a result of Mirza volunteering for community group Aunties and Uncles - a mentoring organisation for families in need. On the day of the incident, Mirza, the 11-year-old complainant and his brother were watching TV while lying on a single bed when the accused massaged the boy's head before saying "this would feel better if I did it on your penis". But the boy said no and pushed his hand away and the incident stopped.

There was said to be no planning involved in the incident and Mirza, who provided glowing references to the court, has no criminal history. His lawyer characterised the offending as a moment of stupidity -- a description accepted by Judge Searles. Mirza reportedly said the offence was almost done in a "joking" fashion.

But Attorney-General Kerry Shine said after reviewing the transcript of the sentencing remarks, and receiving advice from the office of the DPP, he had ordered an appeal be lodged.

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Britain: Bent cop loses

A journalist who suggested that a former police officer may be corrupt was cleared of libel in the Court of Appeal yesterday. In a victory that strengthens the media’s right to report on matters that are in the public interest, the appeal judges said that Graeme McClagan had acted responsibly in his research for the book Bent Coppers.

Michael Charman, who was a detective constable in the Metropolitan Police, claimed that it was libellous because it suggested that there were grounds for suspecting him of involvement in corruption.

The judges ruled unanimously that Mr McLagan had taken steps to verify the story and that as a result of his honesty, his expertise, his careful research and evaluation of the material, his book was protected by a defence of “public interest”. It is thought to be the first time that the defence has been argued successfully for a book.

Caroline Kean, who acted for Mr McLagan and his publishers, Orion, said: “For too long newspapers and book publishers have been deterred from publishing serious investigative journalism by the threat of incredibly complex and expensive libel proceedings if they made the slightest error. This judgment is a breath of fresh air.”

Mr McLagan said: “Exposing police corruption is obviously in the public interest, and was recognised by the trial judge, the Appeal Court and even Mr Charman’s own defence team.” He was surprised that the Police Federation had supported Mr Charman, a man who had to resign for “discreditable conduct”. The federation would have to pay at least 1 million pounds in costs.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Protecting the Innocent Through Technology

In a just society, acquitting the innocent is no less important than convicting the guilty. The principle that an accused person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is, therefore, fundamental to our American sense of justice. Americans generally believe that the innocent should be protected at all costs, and this includes making every possible effort to avoid punishing them for crimes of which they are not guilty.

This emphasis on protecting the innocent is based on a long Western tradition. It was foreshadowed by Exodus 23:7, "Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty." (NIV) Even in the early days of Israel, God clearly emphasized the importance of protecting the innocent.

Sir John Fortescue, an English jurist, believed that every effort should be made to give the benefit of the doubt to the accused: "Who, then, in England, can be put to death unjustly for any crime? Since he is allowed so many pleas and privileges in favor of life. None but his neighbors, men of honest and good repute, against whom he can have no probable cause of exception, can find the person accused guilty. Indeed, one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape punishment of death than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally."

William Blackstone, famous for his four volume Commentaries on the Laws of England published between 1765-1769, explained that "the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." He viewed the protection of the innocent as far more important than the condemnation of the guilty. This idea is the basis of the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. It is not enough that people be suspicious of one man's conduct, or even that they believe he probably committed a wrongful act. No, a man must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have committed a crime in order to be convicted.

In 1895, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the importance of protecting the innocent in the case of Coffin v. U.S. The Court believed that the presumption of innocence was so important that it reversed a lower ruling and required a new trial for the defendant because the lower court judge hadn't made it clear to the jury that the accused was to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Developments in science are helping to advance the protection of the innocent in America's courts and to overturn convictions that were wrongfully obtained. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, those who have been mistakenly convicted in the past can sometimes be exonerated and set free through the presentation of DNA evidence. Since 1989, post-conviction exoneration has been achieved in 208 cases, 145 having occurred after 2000. This technological leap has greatly assisted our ability to pursue justice and protect the innocent.

Seventy-seven percent of the 208 wrongful convictions were the result of misidentification by witnesses. As a trial lawyer, I can attest that eyewitness observations are often fraught with error. The stress of exigent circumstances, the vantage point of one's view, difficulties with seeing or hearing, and the power of suggestion can adversely influence one's perception and memory of observed events. Sadly, these flawed observations sometimes lead to wrongful convictions. Thankfully, however, some of those who were wrongly condemned now have hope through post-conviction access to DNA evidence. Forty-two states currently give prisoners access to DNA evidence in some form, in order to further their ability to defend themselves against wrongful convictions.

This new technology doesn't just protect the innocent-it can also help to determine the guilty. Out of the 208 exonerations mentioned above, suspects or the true perpetrators have been identified in 77 cases.

DNA technology is helping to further the cause of justice by correcting occasional failings due to human perception, memory or manipulation. The men who have been exonerated had already spent, on average, 12 years in prison-a sobering statistic to anyone concerned with fashioning a just society.

All jurisdictions should embrace these scientific advances and incorporate them into their justice systems. While the possibility of a wrongful conviction can never be eliminated in its entirety, we must never cease in our quest to protect the innocent, even while convicting the guilty. A society cannot fairly call itself "just" unless it is vigilant to prevent and correct miscarriages of justice.

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