A Little Legal Aid

Banging people up occupies our society’s thoughts a great deal.
We focus our minds less on prisoners who might be innocent.
High proportions of those sweeping our overcrowded cellblocks claim they didn’t do it.
They would, wouldn’t they, you might say.
But it’s interesting to note that a recent ministerial response to a Parliamentary question revealed that 285 people have had their murder or manslaughter convictions quashed during the last ten years.
We are familiar with many of these cases in Wales, from the Darvell brothers and Jonathan Jones to the Lynette White case and the Cardiff Newsagent Three.
I understand that another high profile Welsh case is poised to be referred to the appeal court.
It may have been made public by the time you read this, although the wheels of justice turn slowly.
Newsagent Three man Mike O’Brien and I have often discussed how hard it is to motivate yourself from a prison cell.
It was Paddy Joe Hill, of the Birmingham Six, who inspired him to stop feeling sorry for himself – and to fight for his freedom.
“Pull yer socks up,” Paddy said, although not quite in those terms.
O’Brien began by writing to every MP across Britain, to every newspaper, to as many public figures as he could.
Return letters, sometimes from seemingly unlikely sources like Lady Mountbatten, arrived like rays of sunshine through the cell bars.
But it’s a hard slog. Prisoners have to find fresh evidence to persuade the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer their case to appeal. All help is gratefully received.
At Cardiff Law School 77 students are now looking at 10 cases in which prisoners claim their innocence.
The students step away from law theory and delve into a real case, real lives.
A dozen of them are working on the case of Richard Davies, jailed for killing a friend Jason Williams at a house in Loughor back in 2001.
Davies admitted fighting with Mr Williams but denied killing him.
Mr Williams’ body has never been found, adding to the trauma for his family.
But Davies’ parents have suffered too. I worked with Wynford and Joan Davies on a recent edition of Wales This Week for ITV Wales.
Like all good parents, they want to do anything they can for their son.
They hope the students can help.
There is a lot of pain in these cases.
Each time questions are raised about a conviction, the fresh publicity is bound to hurt the victim’s family.
But it is in everyone’s interest that the right person is behind bars.
It is essential we ask questions and the criminal justice system must be robust enough to take criticism and, on occasion, to be proved wrong.

::Big Issue Cymru, June 11-17, 2007

Bright sparks

Bosses at South Wales Fire Service are obviously bright sparks.
They are banning snooker tables, dart boards and sofas from their fire stations.
The reasons?
Well, firstly, they want the buildings to be more “visitor friendly”.
Secondly they reckon leisure items “dissuade people from viewing firefighters as professional people”.
There’s a trend for taking any semblance of individuality out of many workplaces – ideally, bosses would like it to appear as if no humans worked in them at all.
But during the last fire strike, driving past Ely fire station in Cardiff, I was one of many motorists tooting my support for staff.
The public doesn’t doubt the professionalism of the firefighters.
Though they make think otherwise of the people in charge.

Wales This Week, 8pm Monday, June 4

Cardiff Law School is running Wales’ first Innocence Project.
The projects have made a major impact on the legal system in the United States – helping to overturn around 200 convictions, but they are still quite new here.
The projects investigate prisoner’s claims to be innocent.
They put law students on the case to see if they can find any fresh evidence which might take the case to appeal.
In all, 77 students in Cardiff are taking part in the project.
Some of them are looking at one particularly difficult and unusual case – the murder of Jason Williams, of Gowerton, in 2001.
Mr Williams’ friend Richard Davies is serving life for the murder. He denies he did it and Mr Williams’ body has never been found.
For the last few weeks the Wales This Week team has been following the students as they investigate what they believe might be a “vital piece of evidence”.
:: Wales This Week is on ITV Wales, at 8pm, on Monday, June 4.

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