Jailed for a crime you didn't commit: Landmark case could be costly for UK
Europe decides this week if a woman wrongfully imprisoned over the death of her baby should receive compensation
Susie Mesure writes interviews, news and features for the Independent on Sunday, Independent and i, and has done for the last ten years or so give or take two lengthy maternity leaves. She is interested in just about any topic, especially anything Scandinavian, food, or consumer-orientated, and used to be the Independent’s Retail Correspondent
Sunday 11 November 2012
Lorraine Allen is an unlikely crusader for justice. The 43-year-old grandmother wants the world to forget that she was wrongly accused of killing her baby and leave her to get on with life. But first she needs the authorities to accept that she was wrongly convicted and make amends. That could happen this week when Europe's highest court for human rights hears Mrs Allen's plea for compensation 12 years after she was wrongfully imprisoned for shaking her four-month-old son to death.
Her sentence was quashed in 2005 after medical experts threw into doubt long-held beliefs about so-called "shaken-baby syndrome" and she was acquitted. And yet, for Mrs Allen, née Harris, not being guilty hasn't been enough to make her innocent again in the eyes of the British legal system.
For her, the nightmare will never end. "Everything was taken away. Everything but the pain and memories. They're mine," she said last week. "I try not to think about it but, now the date's coming up for the hearing, I'll probably be biting my nails off."
The landmark case, which will be heard on Wednesday in the European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber, hinges on whether someone should be presumed innocent once their conviction has been quashed.
It is unclear how much Mrs Allen, originally from Derbyshire, stands to receive but any eventual figure could be substantial, with the government cap on compensation for miscarriages of justice standing at £500,000.
She admits the money "would help financially", but she knows that no amount could give back her lost years and the lives of not one but two children. Tragically, on top of losing four-month-old Patrick, a baby born while she was serving her three-year term was taken away and placed for adoption less than 24 hours after she gave birth.
"I spent the day with him, Joshua Michael I called him, in hospital. Then he got taken. Because of the offence, there was no chance of keeping him," she recalled, speaking in the cramped dining room of her small flat, which sits over a convenience store on a busy road in a town in northern England.
She speaks softly and slowly, finding words hard. I have to tease out her story: she would rather "push away" painful memories than relive them. Her eyes fill with tears periodically and we stop, while she wipes them away. Her cat, known simply as "Cat" because that's all her nearly two-year-old grandson Caleb can say, helps to break the tension, jumping up to be stroked.
Mrs Allen, who has moved from Derbyshire but does not want to disclose her new location, can't even hope for closure from this week's hearing. That was denied to her after Patrick's father, Sean Maguire, buried his son, unilaterally. "It would have been closure if I had got to go to the funeral, but that was taken away from me as well. When I rang up, to see if they were releasing him for the funeral, I got told it's already been done by his dad."
She remains unable to explain how her baby died, two days after his third set of vaccinations on 4 December 1998, but takes me through what she remembers. "I took him for his injection in the morning. He started having sniffles in the afternoon. I wrapped him up, took him for a walk to see my ex's mum. I gave him a bath and settled him for the night. Later [around 1am], he was really, really chesty and having trouble breathing, so I phoned for the doctor. He came, saying he was fine."
Again, a pause for tears. It has been many years since Mrs Allen, who had two daughters by another partner before she met Mr Maguire, has spoken to anyone about her ordeal, and it hurts. "The GP was there for about half an hour. Then I took him up to bed and tucked him up. When I woke up to check on him [about an hour later] he was still in the same position that I'd put him down in. I picked him up and he was all limp and floppy. I just panicked. I called me mum, then an ambulance."
Patrick was taken first to Derbyshire Children's Hospital, and then a specialist unit at Nottingham. He died the next day, with medical opinion still split over what caused the extensive bleeding behind his eyes, and blood over the surface of his brain.
She tries not to tell anyone about her past. "People do judge, even though you've been cleared. Once they know you've been in prison, they point a finger. I don't think they realise it, but they do. If something goes wrong, they say, 'it must be them, because they've been inside'."
Her solicitor, Mike Pemberton, of Stephensons, said: "The problem for the authorities was it was unclear why or how Patrick died. A question mark always remained over her innocence. [But] quashing the conviction meant she shouldn't have to prove it."
Hugh Southey QC, Mrs Allen's barrister, added: "The issue for the court is whether the UK has infringed her right to a presumption of innocence by refusing her compensation. Anyone who has been refused compensation on this basis will benefit. This is not an isolated case."
The case, which will be heard by 20 judges, wound up in Europe after John Reid, then Home Secretary, refused an initial appeal for compensation in 2006. The High Court refused her attempt to challenge the decision by judicial review, and a subsequent appeal was dismissed in 2008.
Meanwhile, Mrs Allen, who remarried six years ago, consoles herself that Joshua, the son she gave up for adoption, might choose to make contact. "There's always that hope," she said.
Burdens of guilt
Being jailed for a crime you didn't commit used to mean you were automatically entitled to compensation once freed. A decision by Home Secretary Jack Straw six years ago changed that. Now victims of miscarriages of justice have to fight for financial amends. A 2011 Supreme Court ruling laid out four parameters for a successful claim. Lawyers argue which cases tick the right box.
George, who served seven years of a life sentence for the murder of Jill Dando until his appeal in 2009 saw the verdict quashed, is one of five test cases asking for compensation.
Lawless was acquitted of murder in 2009 after the confession he had made was ruled wholly unreliable. The High Court will decide whether his case meets criteria for compensation.
The Guildford four
Under the old system, each member of the Guildford Four got around £500,000 for their wrongful conviction for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings in which five people died.
Silcott had his conviction for the 1985 murder of PC Keith Blakelock quashed in 1991 after scientific tests suggested his confession had been fabricated. He received £67,000.
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