TV campaigner celebrates eighth victory out of nine in battle against rough justice

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The Independent Online

Eleven years ago David Jessel was dining with his publisher to celebrate his new book, which highlighted nine suspected miscarriages of justice.

"I told my publisher, 'I bet you within a decade all of these cases come good' - I think the winner got lunch," recalled Mr Jessel.

Paul Blackburn, who spent 25 years in jail for an attempted murder, became the eighth person to have his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal last month. Mr Blackburn, who was convicted at the age of 15, was quick to credit the investigative team from Mr Jessel's Trial and Error television programme for providing the breakthrough in his case.

Only one of the convictions in the 1994 book, also called Trial and Error, that was marked out as a miscarriage still stands. A success rate of eight out of nine is a remarkable record. But Mr Jessel, the investigative journalist who presented the Channel 4 series throughout the 1990s, and BBC's Rough Justice, believes that type of campaigning television is a thing of the past.

Television executives, he says, are extremely reluctant to invest time and money in examining unglamorous miscarriage of justice cases. They are more interested in what Mr Jessel calls "secret camera television", in which reporters use hidden cameras to film illegal or subversive acts.

But a decade ago Mr Jessel and a small team of researchers were given the opportunity to scrutinise convictions where there was a whiff of corruption or incompetence.

"It was very labour-intensive. We always tried to find new evidence that was not available at the time of the conviction. Sometimes you would spend a lot of time investigating cases and discover new information that showed the subject's guilt. You would find new witnesses that had them bang to rights."

But despite the cases often being about unsympathetic characters, such as convicted offenders accused of sex offences or abuse, he believes "they were the best stories in the world to do - there was always a cliff hanger - did they do it or not?"

He started out on the BBC making Rough Justice and switched to Channel 4, where his Trial and Error series ran from 1993 to 1999. This was ended when Michael Jackson, at the time the channel's chief executive, decided that the series was a "bit 1980s" and it was axed.

Mr Jessel still works for the BBC, but since 2000 he has spent half his time working as a commissioner for the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which examines suspected miscarriages of justice. He was given the job at the CCRC on the condition that he cannot oversee or investigate any cases that he has previously worked on.

"The new rock 'n' roll in television is secret cameras. They have discovered things such as the police are racist - next they are likely to reveal that bears defecate in the woods," he jokes. But he is not entirely pessimistic about the future of investigative television. "It will come back because television always reinvents things. It is an incredibly important function of the media to use some of their vast resources for this purpose.

"When you think of the things that television does invest in - just look at the budget for something like Big Brother - then surely there should be the money for more serious investigations.

"For example why doesn't television use some of its vast resources to look at the issue of expert lead cases, such as mothers convicted of shaking babies? I think that is going to be the next big thing."

The nine who fought to clear their names

ABID HUSSEIN

The 43-year-old from Yorkshire was cleared after more than 20 years in prison of murdering a two-year-old in 1978. The toddler died from multiple injuries. Hussein, then 16, admitted injuring the child but did not confess to murder. The Court of Appeal quashed his conviction in 2005 over the nature of his admissions. Mr Abid had unsuccessfully appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the House of Lords.

SHEILA BOWLER

The East Sussex music teacher spent four years in jail convicted of murdering her 89-year-old aunt, who was found drowned in the river Brede in 1992. After two Appeal Court hearings a new trial was ordered in 1997. The Old Bailey returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty.

MARK CLEARY

He was convicted aged 19, with another man, of murdering a boy of 10 in Nottingham in 1986.He claimed his conviction rested on the accusation of his co-accused. The Court of Appeal quashed his conviction nine years later after reconsidering his co-accused's confession.

GARY MILLS AND TONY POOLE

Two men from Gloucester who spent 14 years in prison for murdering a drug dealer, in 1989, were cleared by the Court of Appeal in 2003. Gary Mills (above), 43, and Tony Poole (right), 45, refused to accept parole in 2000 without being cleared. In 1996 and 1997 they had their appeals turned down. In 2003 the Court of Appeal ruled that their conviction was based on misleading police evidence. In 1990 during their trial they denied stabbing Hensley Wiltshire. Mr Mills admitted fighting the man in self-defence. Mr Poole claimed that he was not involved.

MARY DRUHAN

Jailed for life by Reading Crown Court for the murder of two men who died in a fire at a squat, she was freed in 1999 after 10 years in prison. The Court of Appeal heard that witnesses' testimony was not trustworthy and that her alcoholic past had influenced the original verdict.

PETER FELL

The former hospital porter spent 17 years in jail after confessing that he had stabbed to death two women on Hungry Hill, Hampshire, in 1982. He was cleared by the Court of Appeal in 2001. It found his confession came after "oppressive" police interrogation.

PAUL BLACKBURN

The 41-year-old, who spent 25 years in jail, had his conviction for attempted murder quashed last month after an appeal court ruled Cheshire police had lied about his 'confession'. He was not released until March 2003 on life licence, partly because he refused to admit the crime.

MATTHEW RICHARDSON

Richardson was convicted of the particularly brutal murder of a prostitute, Margaret Bolingbroke, in Brighton in 1986. In 1991 after he attempted to submit new evidence to the Court of Appeal, his conviction was quashed and a retrial was ordered. He was convicted a second time in 1992 and in 1993 his second appeal was dismissed. In 2002 the Criminal Cases Review Commission decided not to refer his case.