It may be 72 years old but the case of William Knighton, who was hanged for the murder of his father, is one of the most recent cases to arrive at the Birmingham headquarters of the body charged with investigating miscarriages of justice. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has yet to decide whether to investigate the case, which literally arrived on a desk in the past two weeks.
But the case is, along with the hanging of Danny Driscoll in 1927 in Cardiff, one of the oldest to be considered as a possible miscarriage by the commission, which was created in 1997 to unblock the log jam of appeals against conviction and sentencing. It also offers an antidote to the belief that miscarriages have only happened in the latter part of this century – the unfortunate truth is that miscarriages have been with us as long as the justice system has been around.
It is just that when capital punishment was still available those convicted were hanged and not around to fight for an appeal.
Driscoll, a bookie's runner, was hanged after being found guilty of fatally stabbing a rival during a street fight in Cardiff over a race course extortion racket.
It is claimed that while he might have been at the scene of the fight, he did not stab the victim, Dai Lewis.
However, it is only in the past 20 years – with cases such as the Birmingham Six, the four men convicted of killing newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater, Stefan Kiszko, Derek Bentley, Mahmood Hussein Mattan, Patrick Nicholls and scores of others – that the level of miscarriage has begun to dawn upon people (see box).
“The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases changed the culture and made people stand up and admit that these things could, and did, happen on a huge scale,” says Kate Akester, criminal justice director at pressure group Justice.
“Prior to that people just felt that things like that did not happen.
“There has been a spotlight on the Court of Appeal and the way people are treated at appeal ever since.”
But Akester and others believe that while there have been improvements in the system since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Pace) Act – which introduced the compulsory recording of police interviews – in the 1980s, there are still loopholes through which people are falling.
Several cite the 1996 Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act, which limits the disclosure of evidence to a defence team and the proposed change in mode of trial, as potential sources of future problems.
The CCRC has received 2,944 applications for cases to be reviewed since it was created. So far, it has trawled through more than 1,000, is investigating a further 500 and has referred 69 to the Court of Appeal.
At the end of last week, the court rejected an appeal by Brian Parsons, who was convicted of murder in 1988 in a case referred by the CCRC. The Court of Appeal has heard 31 of the 69 cases and in 21 a sentence has been reduced or a conviction quashed, including Derek Bentley and Mahmood Hussein Mattan.
Another of its references, the M25 Three – three black men convicted of murder and assault despite eye witnesses describing two of the attackers as white – could be the first appeal judgment of the 21st century. Their appeal ended last week, and a decision on the case is expected in January.
Not served by the law
The Birmingham Six were convicted of committing two IRA pub bombings in 1974 on the basis of flawed forensic evidence and fabricated confessions. Their convictions were quashed in 1991.
The Bridgewater Four – Michael Hickey, Vincent Hickey, James Robinson and Pat Molloy – were convicted of killing newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater during a bungled burglary in 1979. Their convictions were quashed in 1997.
Stefan Kiszko was sentenced to life in 1976 for the murder of 11 year old Lesley Molseed based on flawed forensic evidence. His conviction was quashed in 1992 but he died one year later.
Derek Bentley was 19 when he was hanged in 1953 for the murder of Sidney Miles despite not firing the shot that killed the police officer. His accomplice, Christopher Craig, fired the shot but was too young to hang. He was released from prison in 1963 and Bentley took his place on the gallows. The case was taken up by the CCRC and the conviction was quashed in July 1998.
In 1952, 28-year old Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somalian seaman, was hanged in Cardiff for murdering Lily Volpert. In 1998 his conviction became the first referred by the CCRC to be quashed by the Court of Appeal after the main prosecution witness' evidence at the trial was judged unreliable.
Patrick Nicholls served 23 years for a murder that may well not have been committed on the basis of a pathology report described at the appeal as “unsound”. His conviction for murdering family friend Gladys Heath was quashed in June 1998.