Thursday, March 19, 2009

Another disgrace for British "justice"

Innocent man freed after 27 years in prison

A British man who spent 27 years in jail for a murder he did not commit finally had his conviction overturned today after DNA tests destroyed the prosecution case against him. But even as Sean Hodgson, a frail 57-year-old, celebrated his freedom on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in London, it emerged that the DNA tests which freed him should have been carried out 11 years ago.

Lawyers for Mr Hodgson will try to sue the Forensic Science Service after the Court of Appeal heard that its errors kept him in prison for more than a decade when his innocence could have been proved. Mr Hodgson was found guilty in 1982 of killing Teresa De Simone, 22, who had been found strangled in her Ford Escort three years earlier in a car park below the Southampton pub where she was a part-time barmaid.

He had long pleaded his innocence after retracting a confession initially given to a Roman Catholic prison chaplain – one of hundreds of crimes to which he confessed because, as he told his original trial, he was a "pathological liar" – and lost an appeal in 1983. Last March, after many years of mental health problems, he decided to mount one final bid for freedom and contacted a London solicitors firm whose advert he saw in a prison newspaper. That firm managed to organise the DNA tests which proved his innocence.

With close-cropped hair and sunken cheeks , Mr Hodgson was in the Court of Appeal today to court today to hear the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, and two other senior judges rule that his conviction was "unsafe" and should be quashed. Afterwards, supported physically by his brother Peter, he emerged blinking into the early spring sunshine as journalists and television reporters crowded the steps of the court. "How do you feel, Mr Hodgson?" one shouted. "Ecstatic," he replied. "It's great to be free again." Had he ever expected this day to come? "No," came the reply, without hesitation.

Mr Hodgson's case was urgently referred to the court last week by the Criminal Cases Review Commission after DNA tests – not yet developed at the time of the 1982 trial – proved that he was not the killer. The commission wants dozens of other murder cases reviewed in light of the findings.

It emerged today that Mr Hodgson should have been freed more than a decade ago. Sarah Whitehouse, for the prosecution, told the court that his then lawyers had asked in 1998 for DNA tests but had been told by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) that no DNA material had been kept. "This was plainly erroneous information," she told the court. Ms Whitehouse said that an internal investigation had been launched by the FSS - which had no record of the 1998 request - and the matter referred to the Forensic Regulator.

Today's decision means that Mr Hodgson is recognised as one of the longest-serving victims of a miscarriage of justice in British history. The only comparable case is that of Stephen Downing, who also spent 27 years in jail for beating typist Wendy Sewell to death in Bakewell, Derbyshire, but was released in 2002.

De Simone, a gas board clerk and part-time barmaid, had been sexually assaulted before being choked to death with the chain of a gold crucifix that she wore around her neck. Mr Hodgson, of no fixed abode, confessed to Father Frank Moran that he had killed de Simone when she found him sleeping in her car and began screaming. He said he put his hand over her mouth to try to keep her quiet and ended up killing her. The confession was made on the first anniversary of de Simone’s death, and Mr Hodgson told the priest that the image of her face was haunting him. The prosecution case was aided by scientific evidence that showed that Hodgson was of the same blood type as the attacker.

At his trial, at Winchester Crown Court in 1982, Mr Hodgson withdrew his confession and pleaded not guilty. It emerged that he had confessed to hundreds of other crimes, including burglaries that had never been committed, and that the killer’s blood type was common. Mr Hodgson, who is also known by the first name Robert, did not give evidence. According to The Times of February 2, 1982, he told the court: "I would like to tell members of the jury I cannot go into the witness box itself because I am a pathological liar."

At the end of a 15-day trial, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict having deliberated for only 3½ hours. Mr Justice Sheldon, the trial judge, told Mr Hodgson: "It is a verdict with which I entirely agree. I have no doubt whatsoever that you were guilty of this appalling, horrible crime of killing that girl."

Mr Hodgson was refused leave to appeal against his conviction the next year and has continued to protest his innocence. Last year his case was taken over by a new legal team and his solicitor asked Hampshire Police to review the evidence and specifically to carry out DNA testing – which had not been developed at the time of the trial.

The Forensic Science Service had stored material from the case in its archives and DNA tests were carried out on body fluids from the crime scene. When compared with Hodgson’s DNA profile, they showed that he was not Miss de Simone’s attacker.

Hampshire Police have now reopened their files and the force is conducting a new murder investigation to find the real killer, using the new DNA profile to rule out other potential suspects.

In his ruling, Lord Judge said that it was in the broad public interest for the court to set out the facts so that the community at large could understand how the conviction came about, why it was quashed and how it was that these "disturbing events" took place. He emphasised that unlike many other miscarriages of justice, the conviction was not being quashed because some unacceptable feature of police misconduct during the investigation had now emerged, or that any witness who gave evidence was untruthful, or that anything done by anyone at the trial was open to criticism.

"The conviction will be quashed for the simple reason that advances in the science of DNA, long after the end of the trial, have proved a fact which, if it had been known at the time would, notwithstanding the remaining evidence in the case, have resulted in quite a different investigation and a completely different trial," he said. He said that swabs taken from the dead girl had been examined and there were sufficient remnants of sperm on them for proper DNA analysis, resulting in the conclusion that the sample on the swabs did not come from the appellant.

"Whoever raped her - on these findings, it can’t be the appellant," Lord Judge said. "The Crown’s case was that whoever raped her also killed her, so the new DNA evidence has demolished the case for the prosecution."

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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