Focus: Television justice. Shortfalls of a TV plea
28 July 1998
Vera Baird asks whether Clear My Name can be more than entertainment. Vera Baird is a criminal barrister at 14 Tooks Court.That the team who made Channel 4's Trial and Error sought to correct miscarriages of justice is beyond question.
The series highlighted the cases of Sheila Bowler, released from a life sentence for the murder of an aunt who probably died of natural causes, and Danny McNamee, the first case referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
More recently, lateral thinking led the same team to create a series of interactive crime programmes, the objective being to recruit the public, who perhaps had evidence to reverse wrongful convictions.
Clear My Name, the first series of which has just come to a close, is the plea advanced on behalf of people whose cases, in the words of presenter Anita McNaught ,"raise the suspicion that a miscarriage of justice has taken place".
Using the phone-in system of Crimewatch - the series' logical opposite - each episode showcased at least two possible miscarriages of justice.
First McNaught and co-presenter David Jessel explained the background to the cases, then they staged a live phone-in at the now-closed Oxford Prison.
McNaught and Jessel made it clear again and again that they would accept evidence of guilt if people sent it in, in order to cross a case off their list of potential injustices.
The series was a great idea - a moral boot on the other foot and a move towards peoples' justice - but it got off to an unfortunate start. Its first case involved Mark Litchfield, skipper of square rigger Maria Assumpta, which smashed into rocks off Padstow, north Cornwall, killing three crew members.
Litchfield was convicted of manslaughter, allegedly having steered too close to the coast and into a fast current. In urgent need of power, he started the engine but it cut out, thanks, the prosecution claimed, to dirty diesel he had bought cheaply, knowing it might be contaminated.
Cut to Jessel, motor-sailing across swirling waves alongside an ex-naval officer who expressed confidence in Litchfield's sailing skills. Meanwhile, a forensic engineer removed a control panel from the wreck and found a switch which would cut out if it became wet. Did the engine fail because of an electrical fault, rather than the dodgy diesel?
Released from his 18-month internment, Litchfield wants to clear his name. But what can the viewer do? Did anyone video the shipwreck? Have any viewers experienced engine failure at sea?
In programme two, the captain of the replica ship Golden Hind said an electrical fault stopped his engine. McNaught asked him whether an electrical fault could have stopped Maria Assumpta's engine. Although the most appropriate answer was "How should I know?", the captain agreed it could have - hardly a stunning piece of new evidence for the Court of Appeal to ponder.
By this point, Oxford Prison resembled a disco, lit red and grey. All around, steam rose dramatically. Time then, for the case of Colin James, imprisoned for murdering his business partner after his bloody footprint was found in the dead man's garage.
A scientist said the blood may have been dog mess. But this item was risible, badly put together and embarrassing for the resources it squandered.
By the third programme, dialogue was tighter and cases were covered in more depth. But even week four had some lacklustre items. Take the case of Yvonne Sleightholme, convicted of murdering Mrs Smith, perhaps for the love of Mr Smith. Police pointed to blood found on her car. McNaught solemnly interviewed fingerprint expert Peter Swann, who nodded sagely and said this huge paw shape was likely to be a man's handprint. I believe it was more likely to be a rough outline of the stain than its precise dimensions, and what if the killer, as any killer with nous would, wore big gloves?
So do such programmes undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system? Despite the disco lighting, the series' style suggested it was not against the courts but sought to lend a hand. I question why such obvious items as the Maria Assumpta switch were not examined at trial. However, there was no inherent attack on the justice system, especially since the series makers accepted that many of their subjects might be guilty.
The wrongly-convicted are often too disheartened to fight for themselves. They would have taken heart when this programme was at its best - when it questioned the evidence-gathering processes, so that audience members for example (as potential jurors), could develop scepticism. For tracing witnesses it was matchless - solicitors already treat it as a resource.
But will Clear My Name resolve miscarriages of justice? That depends on putting new case material revealed by the programme through the Court of Appeal - a different test from pleasing the public.
The high-calibre work the team has previously produced suggests that however intermittently weak its grip on this series, it will do its research in depth. This has been the best side of its work in the past, to the gratitude of many who would otherwise have tuned in from a prison cell.
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