Judge meets jailed 'victims' of legal system: Terry Kirby hears 22 prisoners put their case to the Royal Commission on criminal justice (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

STEVE DAVIES, 29, shaven-headed, 6ft tall and serving 12 years for robbery, jabs his finger into the air to make his case to Lord Runciman, chairman of the Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System: 'You wouldn't convict a cat for stealing from a dustbin on the evidence that put me inside.' Davies claims that the identity parade which formed the only evidence against him was rigged.

Colin Dunning, serving 20 years for conspiracy holds up his battered copy of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace), which he can apparently recite backwards. 'This law,' he spits out, 'is designed to make police respect the rights of suspects. If anyone else breaks the law they go to prison. When the police break these laws, nothing happens.' Dunning has been refused an appeal and his solicitor is having to work without payment in his new submission to the Home Office. Dunning claims that police broke Pace throughout his interviews.

Sezai Mustafa, 54, serving 18 years for heroin importation, theatrically steps forward into the middle of the circle of men seated around Lord Runciman, plonks down a ghetto-blaster and tapes of his interview with police and thrusts into his Lordship's lap a transcript of his taped interview heavily marked to indicate what is on the tape and what the police said was on it. He claims that the transcripts were either a mistake or a deliberate act and helped result in his conviction.

Tony Quigley, a scrawny little Scotsman serving life for a murder to which his brother has confessed, stands bolt upright to deliver his set piece: 'All I require, your Lordship, is five minutes in front of the Lord Chief Justices in the Court of Appeal; just five minutes to have my say and I know they will believe me.'

These men in the circle surrounding Lord Runciman are what has become known as the Long Lartin 22, the group of inmates at the maximum security prison in Worcestershire serving long sentences for serious crimes which they all say they did not commit. Lord Runciman was responding to their invitation to hear their case, the only time at which the commission has met face-to-face with those who claim to be victims of a system he has been ordered to put right.

But Lord Runciman made it clear that he was not there to take up their individual cases, simply to listen to the overall nature of the problem: in other words, he was too late to give them direct help.

Individually and collectively, the men railed against the system. They attacked delays and difficulties in obtaining legal aid, the vagaries of lawyers, the obduracy of the Home Office, the corruption of the police and the unfairness of judges' summings-up. Solicitors who sent their clerks when they were arrested and barristers who knew the outcome of cases before they were over were treated with particular disdain.

The department of the Home Office charged with investigating potential miscarriages after all other avenues have been exhausted, C3, came in for particular criticism. Peter Fell, convicted of two murders largely on the basis of a denied and uncorroborated confession which later turned out to be inaccurate, said: 'They say they require new evidence before they will consider a case again, but they never define what new evidence means.'

Throughout, Lord Runciman, accompanied by Professor John Gunn of the Institute of Psychiatry, a commission member, listened intently and asked questions which gave clues to the commission's thinking: in how many cases was forensic evidence crucial? Would most of them favour a retrial, even years later? And what did they think about having regular legal advice in prison?

The discussion flowed into a buffet lunch where Lord Runciman was surrounded by the men over the orange juice, chicken legs and chocolate cake. Peter Mitchell, serving 22 years for robbery, who has recently discovered that the police notes of his interview are missing, said he would rather not have any lunch, thank you, he was not used to such rich food.

Lord Runciman went off to meet the prison staff. 'Five years ago, all the training of probation and prison staff was on the basis that the prisoners were all guilty; any who protested were simply denying their guilt,' said Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, who organised yesterday's meeting. 'Now they have to be trained into accepting that quite a number of them are going to be innocent of the crimes for which they are serving very long sentences.'

Long Lartin jail was searched last night after a makeshift pistol was found in a workshop.


A headline on page 2 of yesterday's edition of the Independent incorrectly described Lord Runciman, chairman of the Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System, as a judge. He is not a member of the judiciary.