S.C Lomax Article
The Role of the Internet in Fighting a Miscarriage of Justice by S. C. Lomax
The leading Defence barrister Michael Mansfield QC believes that justice responds in some part to public opinion and public pressure. In his book ‘Presumed Guilty’ (published in 1993) he wrote: ‘These cases [the Birmingham Six, Maguire Seven, Guildford Four and Tottenham Three, all of which had their convictions quashed] were not proof that the appeals system works but that public pressure works.’
Mansfield mentions how supporters in the above cases would campaign up and down the country and raise awareness of the plight of the innocents in prison, which helped build up momentum towards a successful appeal. If he were to rewrite the book he would doubtless refer to the increasing use of the Internet as a means of fighting against a wrongful conviction.
Anyone who is viewing this article will have a good understanding of how the Internet enables information to be accessed like never before. According to one researcher there are more than a staggering 227 million websites on the Internet and the number is growing every day. In a sense it is an evil, with much false and misleading information, and users often require the patience of a Saint to work their way through the results of a search engine to find anything meaningful or remotely useful, but there is no questioning of its value. For Jeremy the Internet has been an essential tool in identifying experts who can offer their professional experience in establishing the correct interpretations to evidence which the prosecution incorrectly used at his trial.
If only the Internet had been around 25 years ago when even the ZX Spectrum was a novelty to many. Back then an expert would be identified through professional journals, registers and recommendations. Without the internet the world was a larger place and so often it would not be possible to know of an expert in a foreign land whose expertise and knowledge could far outweigh that of our home grown scientists.
It is not only experts who are the key to gaining new evidence to overturn a wrongful conviction. Members of the public can often provide information they were unwilling or unable to share at the time a crime was committed or at the time of a trial. In Jeremy’s case, where there are 340,000 documents being withheld from his defence (how many secrets are contained within them?) there needs to be a means by which anyone with information who has a true desire to uphold justice can offer information. An internet presence is useful for that reason.
For the past ten years prisoners have used the internet to communicate with the outside world in a way they can control, albeit through a supporter. Jeremy was one of the first to have a website established on his behalf and since then several others have gone online to protest their innocence. The organisation Miscarriages of Justice United Kingdom (MOJUK) offers prisoners a free webpage on their site, an offer which has been taken up by dozens of prisoners over the years, largely by those who do not have the support of more high profile cases.
In 2001 the MP John Whittingdale asked a question in the House of Commons regarding whether Jeremy’s website should be allowed to exist at all. He was informed that prisoners are allowed to have a website provided that it is set up and maintained by a person outside of prison, that a prisoner cannot receive any payment relating to contents he or she writes, the prisoner cannot provide details of their crime ‘except where it consists of serious representations about a conviction or sentence’ and does not refer to prison staff or other prisoners in a way in which they can be identified.
Other concerns have often been raised such as that allowing a prisoner to have the means of communicating on a mass scale could cause offence to law abiding citizens and immeasurable distress to friends and relatives of the prisoner’s victims. Whilst I have some sympathy for these views it is morally justifiable that a prisoner who has grounds to maintain their innocence should be allowed to do so. If, as Mansfield is right, the justice system responds to public opinion then how is the victim of a miscarriage of justice in a high profile case supposed to successfully reach the court of appeal if he or she cannot argue against media sensationalism and flawed public perceptions?
Naturally a prisoner’s website could cause offence to the relatives of the victims of a crime, just as allowing a prisoner to speak to the media could cause upset. Members of Jeremy’s extended family have voiced their distain at his use of the internet and media yet those same relatives who have suffered ‘much distress’ have spoken freely to the media, sometimes making the initial approach, and giving interviews in documentaries which are broadcast several times a year. Does Jeremy and/or his campaign not have a right to respond?
With the creation of a website a prisoner has a platform to not only air their views, but they also a means to receive the views of others. This can be bad in that abusive messages are inevitably sent, insulting and threatening the prisoner and often deriding their campaign, but it is not all bad. Jeremy has received thousands of messages of support from well wishers across the world as a direct result of his website. Even a few words from a person who wishes true justice to prevail can be a source of hope and support. A friendly message can make all the difference.