How can you serve a decade in prison for a crime you didn’t commit?

Below is an article written by Sam’s best friend who describes the legal processes involved in appealing a serious conviction.

My best friend is a lifer. She’s done 11 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s now battling cancer due to medical neglect and still hasn’t got to the appeal courts. How can this be? How can someone serve a decade in prison for a crime that they didn’t commit? The answer – all too easily. Sam is also not an exception to the rule. Thousands are in prison while maintaining innocence.

This blog paints a timeline of how slowly over time one month becomes, two, two becomes six, six becomes a year and so it goes on.

Months on remand

Sam2Sam was arrested in May 2007. She spent many months on remand waiting for trial. Her trial then took 2 months. This is the equivalent to a 4 year sentence. In England and Wales in 2016 alone, 34,256 people were remanded in prison before trial. In Scotland, the rates of remand are even higher.

Three weeks before her sentence, her solicitor Jonathon Morrissey, from firm Ellis Jones withdrew from her case. A private investigator later found out it was because he was actually the coroner and that representing Sam was therefore illegal.

Having no legal contacts, friends in high places or outside support, Sam did what many prisoners do. She looked through the prisoner newspaper, Inside Time, and wrote with her fingers crossed to whichever advert she came across first. Sam wrote to many solicitor firms and the only ones who stepped forward were Church Court Chambers.

Surviving the Trial, the shock and the search for a new firm

Sam didn’t have a chance in court. Her team didn’t know hardly anything about her case. She played into the CPS’s hands making it easy for them to paint her in a certain way. She was detoxing from heroin and on the wrong medication for her bipolar. They brought a man who had raped her as a witness. It was an inevitable disaster. Writing about her trial is a whole other article.

After weeks deliberating, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Sam’s whole world fell through. Before her trial, Sam was homeless and contending with a life-long drug and alcohol addiction developed after one of the most traumatic childhoods imaginable. She trusted the legal system and that it would somehow deliver justice, that she’d walk free from the court. What now?!

Having been deeply let down by John Aspinall QC (also now dead) at Church Court Chambers, the hunt began for another firm. Few were interested in a legal-aid funded case for something that would take many months or years of work. Finally one offered – Jacobs Solicitors. They encouraged Sam to appeal her sentence as a stepping stone to appealing her conviction. They managed to argue there was no financial gain in her case and so she received a few years off her sentence. It was clear by then they were not interested in appealing Sam’s full conviction. Infamous Tory-led Legal aid changes introduced in 2012 made it unattractive to work with lifers or prisoners in general.

By this point, it is March 2011 and Sam has done 4 years in prison.

Gans and Company – Disappointment and despair

Without a passionate firm behind her, Sam’s ability to win freedom is impossible. So she begins to search for another firm (again). Once again, she writes to companies advertising in the Inside Time newspaper. The first to respond is Gans & Co Solicitors LLP. She completes the initial paperwork and then waits to hear. A few months go by. “We are reading your paperwork”. A few more months go by. Calls don’t get returned, letters don’t get replies. Finally, after some agitation, they send Sam some paperwork saying they have reviewed her case and don’t think she has a chance of being successful. Yet they haven’t even talked to her or visited her in prison. They haven’t listened to her story or followed any of her leads or comments on what happened in court.

It’s now October 2012 and Sam has been in prison for 5.5 years.

Carter Moore – Financial exploitation of vulnerable prisoners

As for anyone in prison, there isn’t unlimited headspace to concentrate on legal work. There isn’t the unending energy to fight the despair. In October 2012, Sam was moved to HMP Holloway in a dramatic move separating her from her long-term partner. In HMP Holloway they refuse Sam her bipolar medication. Her mental health deteriorates fast. It was some of the hardest months of our lives. She was put in segregation (isolation) where she faced regular beatings, bullying and violence from officers. She tried to kill herself three times. It was hell.

In September 2013, we begin communication with yet another solicitors firm – Carter Moore. Once again found in the prison newspaper. They express a lot of interest and offer some hope, but tell us Sam is not eligible for Legal Aid. My grandmother had just passed away and she left me £6000, I use it to pay for their time at least to get to the appeal court where more legal aid might be granted.

The same as any new firm – they ask for some time to read the paperwork. So we wait. The solicitor sees Sam once but doesn’t listen to her, simply speaking over her again and again. I send an email to the solicitor, Emma Freeman, no reply. I ring, no one returns my call. This goes on. Our fear escalates. Finally, we found out Emma has had some ‘personal issues’ and not been at work, we wait patiently. No communication. Months go by and the anxiety increases. We decided not to rest Sam’s life in the hands of this company. It took me over a year to fight for a refund from the firm who admitted they had done nothing on Sam’s case.

It’s now the summer of 2015 and Sam has been in prison 8 years.

Rushton Legal Services

In 2015, another lifer in a new prison tells Sam she has a really good solicitor. “He’s class, Sam. He used to be a cop but hated the corruption so he became a solicitor and he hates the system. You’d love him”. He was called Geoff Rushton. A really nice working class guy and dedicated solicitor, okay maybe a bit unconventional but overall very dedicated and aware of the brutality of the prison service and tactics used by the police and CPS to secure convictions.

He tells us he’s up to his eyeballs in work but will contact us when he can learn more about her case. Finally, he visits Sam in September 2015. He asks Carter Moore for her paperwork (which they allegedly spent a year reading). They courier over two boxes. I visit him in Greater Manchester. He asks me where the rest of her paperwork is. I tell him Carter Moore had told me they had collected it from Gans and Company. Carter Moore don’t reply to their emails, calls or messages. He reads what he can and starts to contact other firms to understand where the hell all the necessary paperwork is. Everyone denies having it or says they have sent it to the next person.

Geoff actually does more than all of the other firms put together. He hires a private investigator. He visits Sam and asks the right questions. She feels trust and confidence.

In August 2016, Sam is diagnosed with cancer and her ability to concentrate on her appeal is impacted. All her energy is going on surviving and battling HMP Peterborough, a private prison, for access to her treatment.

Then Geoff starts to fall out of contact. He stops replying to emails and texts. Doesn’t return calls. He then gets in touch saying he’s got some “health stuff” going on and will be back in January. We wait over an anxious winter. I visit him in March 2017. He tells me he has cancer too and now it is terminal. He ships the two boxes to me and I never hear from him again. RIP Geoff.

Its now 2017 and Sam has been in prison 10 years.

Cardiff Innocence Project

Now Sam is without a solicitor, again. I reach out for support. Friends start to create a spreadsheet of firms to contact. We try to find out who has already got out high profile miscarriage of justice cases. We call firm after firm. They ask for her case papers and I reply saying we don’t have them. Rejection after rejection. I’m in tears crossing out firms on the list who are all not interested.

A friend suggests getting in touch with University Innocence Projects – these are where students work with a qualified staff member on a case. Cardiff University reply and agree to support Sam. The relief is overwhelming.

Yet the search for the paperwork continues. Together we contact old firms. Many people who had worked on Sam’s case have left or have died. Most firms like Carter Moore and Gans & Co don’t even reply.

Finally, we contact the Crown Prosecution Service directly via the Centre for Criminal Appeals Solicitors. Not even a reply after three attempts and many months.It is because of this that we have launched a letter writing campaign to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to encourage them to give us Sam’s paperwork.

Most prisoners do not have the social or financial capital to access quality legal support. Many teach themselves law as the only option to proactively work for their freedom. What about the prisoners with learning disabilities? What about the 1/4 of prisoners who have the average reading age of an 11-year-old? Or those with mental health issues? What about prisoners like Sam who is contending with life-and-death health issues and has limited energy to also fight for an appeal? What if the denial of basic human rights is so prevalent that most prisoners fight for basic things like time outside or adequate food before fighting for bigger needs like the reform of the justice system?

It is now November 2018 and Sam has been in prison 11.5 years.

That, my friends, is how someone serves over a decade in prison for something they did not do and still doesn’t get to the appeal courts.