More than four years ago the University of Bristol (UoB) Innocence Project decided to fight the conviction of a man accused of a brutal murder.
Through months of investigation and the healthy scepticism of former Bristol student Gabe Tan, the case of Simon Hall was brought to appeal at the High Court.
Hall was charged with the murder of a 79-year-old woman, Joan Albert, in 2001, but has maintained his innocence throughout the eight years he has spent in prison. But only through the efforts of research assistant Tan and founder of the UK arm of the Innocence Project Dr Michael Naughton was key evidence against Hall called into question.
“I’m quite a sceptical person,” says Tan. “I don’t just take things on face value. And what got me interested in this project was that I want to know the truth, especially when someone has been accused of a serious crime. I’ve learnt so much from working on this case. It’s opened my eyes to how forensic science can go wrong and given me a lot of skills.”
Although the conviction was upheld last month the team is determined to go on with its fight against Hall’s conviction and, as Tan puts it, ”continue for as long as he’s happy for us to”.
But another of the UoB Innocence Project’s cases, which it has been investigating since 2005, is about to flood the media landscape via a BBC TV programme set to launch this year featuring the investigation of Neil Hurley, a man convicted in 1994 and given a life sentence for the murder of Sharon Pritchard.
Naughton explains that the project relies on media attention to push cases into the public arena and gain public support for claims of innocence. He believes the BBC programme on Simon Hall (Rough Justice, aired in 2007) to some extent pushed the Criminal Cases Review Commission to bring the case to appeal at the High Court after feeding the issues into public concerns, and is hoping for the same result for Hurley.
Until recently Innocence Project cases were related mainly to the US, being thrown into the media arena due to the blockbuster film Conviction, which depicts the case of Kenneth Water, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Through Naughton’s vision, the UK arm of the project has offered salvation to those who have fallen victim to miscarriages of justice, giving hope to those who are innocent and have become lost within the UK’s judicial system.
Naughton came to the UoB in his 30s off the back of an industry injury, studied criminology and began developing an interest in miscarriages of justice after starting his doctoral research.
He explains how, through his academic research, he met members of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, who shared horror stories of their treatment by police, including being stripped naked, having bags put over their heads, guns pushed into their mouths and being chained to radiators.
“It added another dimension to my work – it humanised it,” he says. “When they started telling me their stories it was nothing like reading it in a book. They became real people to me and it made me want to do something about it.”
The UoB Innocence Project now corresponds with hundreds of prisoners, receiving letters on a daily basis. On receipt the project sends out a questionnaire and asks for a narrative of innocence. Its objective is to practise ’professional non-alignment’, ensuring it judges each case on its merits. This means around 80 per cent of claims are likely be deemed invalid.
Once a case is taken Naughton and Tan work with a team of law students on tasks such as summarising witness statements, looking at fingerprint evidence or analysing case law.
“The whole Innocence Project speaks to me because it’s ultimately where I see I could work as a barrister later on,” says first-year law undergraduate and qualified forensic scientist Vaughn Caines. “This is something I feel strongly about.
I believe in justice and want to help people if something untoward’s happened. I strongly believe in what the project’s doing and plan to be involved in all its future endeavours.”
In five years, the UoB Innocence Project has helped to set up around 30 Innocence Projects in UK universities, relying on the goodwill of more than 500 staff and enthusiastic students to respond to the huge demand, with the support of pro bono lawyers. The UoB Innocence Project holds annual training conferences for the other universities, with the last two being hosted at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s office in London.