Miscarriages of Justice: Women

Miscarriages of Justice: Women

Identified miscarriages of justice in woman have a different overall profile from those in men.

.Identified miscarriages of justice in woman have a different overall profile from those in men.

Our Miscarriages of Justice Registry suggests that the most common causes of miscarriages of justice in men are false or misleading witness evidence from a non-complainant and false or misleading confessions, but the most common causes of miscarriages of justice in women are inadequate disclosure and false or misleading forensic science.

One striking feature of miscarriages of justice in women is that approximately 25% of the identified cases (13/53) involve women who have been wrongly convicted of harming a child in their care. A similar theme can be seen in the United States National Registry of Exonerations. In a 2014 report, that Registry noted that 40% of female exonerees were exonerated of crimes with child victims. One such case was the case of Sabrina Butler.

Sabrina Butler is a Black American woman, who has survived a tragic miscarriage of justice. In 1990 she was sent to Death Row, later becoming known as the first female to be exonerated; but not before spending 6 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. On April the 12th 1989 when she was just 17, Sabrina’s nine-month-old son died of a hereditary kidney condition. Almost a year later, Sabrina was sentenced to death, falsely accused of taking her own child’s life. Butler has now shared her story, highlighting the pitfalls of the American criminal justice system. From being prevented from attending her baby son’s funeral, to coerced false confessions, she experienced a significant failure of justice.

So, if her son died of a hereditary kidney condition, how did Butler end up being the prime suspect in a murder investigation?

When Sabrina first realised her son was not breathing, she attempted to resuscitate him. Later on, she gave various accounts of what happened, from a fictional babysitter, to jogging with and without the baby. But crucially, she signed a statement confessing that she had punched the baby in the abdomen in response to his consistent crying. This statement was focused on by the prosecution focused upon in her trial. Her defence team called no witnesses, and instead relied on cross-examinations of the prosecution witnesses.

Many reading this may question why on earth an innocent mother would confess to such actions against their own child. But, when reading Butler’s recollections of her interrogation by law enforcement officers, the pressures become clearer;

“I was alone with no lawyer or parent with me. I told him I tried to save my baby. He wrote down what I said and threw it in the garbage. He yelled at me for three hours. No matter what I said, he screamed over and over that I had killed my baby. I was terrified. I was put in jail and not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral.”

“Ambitious men questioned, demoralized and intimidated me. In that state of mind, I signed the lies they wrote on a piece of paper. I signed my name in tiny letters in the margin to show some form of resistance to the power they had over me.”

There has been significant research into why innocent people falsely confess to a crime they did not do. In summary, false confessions most likely occur due to three factors (see here for more information): custodial and interrogative pressure, defendant psychological vulnerabilities (see here for more information) and a lack of transparency regarding evidence. From this list we can clearly see that Sabrina’s case involved at least 2, if not all 3 of these elements. Most concerningly, Sabrina’s accounts describe dangerous levels of police interrogation pressure. Combined with her being a young female and a recent mother who had just lost her baby son, there is no doubt over her psychological vulnerabilities at the time of experiencing this pressure.  

Portrayal of a ‘She-Devil’?

Many of the miscarriages of justice involving women do not even involve a false confession. Potentially, women in these situations are susceptible to being judged more harshly and to having unreliable evidence against them more generally interpreted as reliable or even conclusive, due to gender stereotypes.

In a 2019 report, Appeal, a charity fighting miscarriages of justice, have noted the risk that gender-stereotypes play out against women in these types of case (see here). Women who are accused of a crime against a child, especially their own child, are judged negatively and harshly for allegedly violating social stereotypes.

In England and Wales, the majority of miscarriages of justice involving women in cases of this type involve false or misleading forensic evidence. In many cases, this evidence came from a now discredited paediatric pathologist, Dr. Roy Meadow. The below are some examples of women in England and Wales whose stories are detailed in our registry, who were wrongly convicted, and later acquitted, of harming children in their care. Their stories can help us to understand how evidence may be misinterpreted in such cases, how this might lead to miscarriages of justice, and the influence those miscarriages of justice have on victims who are already grieving for the loss of a child.

Sally Clark (see here) – A mother wrongfully convicted of killing her two baby sons, who died just a couple of years apart. She was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999 but acquitted in 2003 when it was shown that expert evidence presented against her was unreliable. Sadly, Sally struggled to cope after her conviction was overturned and died in 2007. 

Angela Cannings (see here) – A mother wrongly convicted of killing two of her three babies who had died as a result of sudden infant death syndrome. She was imprisoned in 2002 but acquitted a year later. She continues to suffer a complicated relationship with her surviving child as a result of her experience.

Suzanne Holdsworth (see here)  – A babysitter accused of murdering her neighbours 2-year-old son. She was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 but was found not guilty at a retrial in 2008 when new evidence suggested the child may have died of a seizure.

Donna Anthony (see here) – A mother falsely accused of killing her two babies, convicted in 1998 and acquitted 6 years later when it was shown that expert evidence presented against her was unreliable.

These cases combine devastating circumstances relating to the loss of a child with vulnerable women who are susceptible to judgment and stereotypes prior to their conviction. These are just some of the cases we are now aware of, sadly, it is likely that many have slipped under the radar. As more potential miscarriages of justice, it is important to consider the evidence that is introduced in such cases and how the system can ensure it is effectively scrutinised to an extent that meets relevant scientific standards.  By creating an awareness of the problem, we can work with legal and medical professionals to develop solutions.

Author Beth Mann – Graduate Research Assistant

You can read Sabrina’s story first-hand in an article written by her in 2014: https://time.com/2799437/i-spent-more-than-six-years-as-an-innocent-woman-on-death-row/

For our new infographic summarising some of our data on women’s miscarriages of justice see: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/MiscarriagesofJustice_Women-1.pdf

To search our registry for cases involving women go to the following link, and select “F” for gender: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/miscarriages-of-justice-registry/the-cases/overview-graph/

False Guilty Pleas And The Post Office Scandal

False Guilty Pleas And The Post Office Scandal

‘Why did the post office appellants plead guilty? And Why is this important?’

Innocent people plead guilty to crimes they have not committed. Sometimes they are aware they have not committed a crime. Sometimes they have insufficient information to know whether they have. Of the 39 successful appellants in the Post Office Scandal, 35 had pleaded guilty to at least one charge against them. The appellants, now recognised as innocent, pleaded guilty to charges including theft, fraud, and false accounting.

But why did the appellants plead guilty? And crucially, could the miscarriages of justice have been avoided if the defendants hadn’t felt pressure to plead?

False guilty pleas are not uncommon, and are most documented in the USA. The US National Registry of Exonerations lists 576 cases of defendants who have pled guilty to crimes but have later been exonerated of those crimes. These “false” guilty pleas are perhaps unsurprising in the US plea-bargaining system, where defendants often face compelling incentives to plead (see here for more information). To give an extreme example, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon pleaded guilty to rape and murder in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment after being notified that the prosecution would seek the death penalty against them if they exercised their right to trial. They were exonerated 30 years later when DNA testing showed that they were innocent. Dixon passed away shortly before his official exoneration.

In an article in the Cornell Law Review, my collaborator John Blume and I identified three primary categories of case in which innocent defendants plead guilty in the US – (1) in low-level offences where pleading guilty allows a defendant to get out of jail or avoid spending time in jail (see here, for example), (2) in cases where innocent defendants who are wrongfully convicted win a new trial and pleading guilty allows them to secure immediate or imminent release (see here, for example), and (3) where the sentence a defendant can receive at trial is so much more severe than the sentence they will get if they plead guilty that they plead guilty out of fear (see here, for example).

A line of experimental research has examined guilty pleas in innocent defendants in the US system and confirms that people who are innocent will admit guilt when the right incentives are offered (see here, for example).

But what about England and Wales, isn’t the system here fairer?

The guilty plea system in England and Wales is typically considered fairer and the incentives to plead seem less extreme (see here). The official discount for pleading guilty is a sentence reduction of up to 1/3, given by the judge at sentencing. However, it is important to note that this reduction can make the difference between a custodial and non-custodial sentence and thus can mean people may end up in prison if they go to trial but will not if they plead guilty.

In addition, defendants can have charges against them dropped if they plead guilty, and can sometimes obtain immediate release from custody if they plead guilty (something that has the potential to be very important in the context of current court backlogs).  

Evidence shows that innocent people in England and Wales do plead guilty.

Evidence shows that innocent people in England and Wales do plead guilty. Many of the cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC initially involved a guilty plea (for more information, see here), and our Miscarriages of Justice Registry provides specific examples. Thomas Smart pleaded guilty to possessing live ammunition following a novelty bullet keyring being found at his home. His conviction was quashed after the Forensic Science Service admitted it had made a mistake and acknowledged that the keyring was not live ammunition. Michael Holliday pled guilty to robbery of a security vehicle on the advice of his lawyer, but his conviction was quashed when evidence showed someone else had committed the offence.  Two of the “Shrewsbury 24” (Graham Roberts and Patrick Butcher) pled guilty and had their convictions quashed nearly fifty years later.

The Post Office Scandal provides a further list of cases in which defendants pleaded guilty when they were not guilty. Josephine Hamilton, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson, Hughie Thomas, Jacqueline McDonald, Allison Henderson, Allison Hall, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Thomas Hedges, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Lynette Hutchings, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomsen, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Gillian Howard, David Blakey, Janet Skinner, Seema Misra, Scott Darlington, Peter Holmes, Rubina Shaheen, Pamela Lock, Vijay Parekh, Dawn O’Connell, Carl Page, Mohammed Rasul, and Wendy Buffrey all pleaded guilty to at least one charge against them. Statements suggest that they did this due to the fear of custody (or a longer period in custody) if they contested their guilt at trial.

David Thomas Hedges stated that he pled guilty due to being “petrified of the prospect of jail.” Josephine Hamilton stated that she pled guilty “to avoid prison,” and Wendy Buffrey said she was “advised to plead guilty… to avoid jail.”

But these guilty pleas, while almost always preventing a jail sentence from being imposed, had huge consequences. Many of those convicted were forced to declare bankruptcy (see here and here, for example), some lost their homes (see here and here), and in two cases the convictions were linked to deaths of those convicted (see here and here). And now, it’s become clear that the defendants were not guilty. Evidence against them was a result of a faulty computer system.

Of the 39 sub-postmasters and mistresses acquitted in the recent judgment, only four (Lisa Brennan, Damien Owen, Tracy Felstead, and Harjinder Butoy) refused to plead guilty to any charge.

An important but currently unanswered question is how many sub-postmasters and mistresses had charges brought against them that were dropped when they wouldn’t plead guilty, or that were found insufficient to lead to a conviction by judges or jurors. One important consequence of pleading guilty is that you are convicted when the evidence may not have proved guilt at trial.

Could many of the victims of this miscarriage of justice have avoided conviction, had they not been pressured to plead guilty by the threat of custody and the opportunity to avoid it?

Another important, but perhaps unanswerable, question is whether the problems with the Horizon system and the inadequacy of its data as legal proof might have come to light sooner had it been scrutinized in more full trials.

While it may not be possible to fully answer these questions, the cases certainly highlight many issues with the guilty plea system. Where defendants are threatened with custodial sentences at trial, which they can avoid by pleading guilty, this will lead many innocent defendants to plead guilty. As a result, innocent people are convicted of criminal offences and the guilty plea loses its status as a relatively reliable indicator of guilt. This has devastating consequences for both defendants themselves and the criminal justice system more generally.

Author Dr. Rebecca K. Helm – Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Solicitor in England and Wales, Attorney at Law in New York State, USA.

Follow us on Twitter @ExeterLawSchool @RebeccaKHelm and LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/evidence-based-justice-lab

For a list of Dr Helm’s academic publications on guilty pleas, see the publications page of our website: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/publications/

For more information on our data and research on guilty pleas, see the guilty plea decisions page of our website: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/current-research-data/admissions-of-guilt/

For more information on guilty pleas in actual cases in England and Wales, search for guilty plea cases in our miscarriages of justice registry:

#PostOfficeCase #PostOfficeTrial #EBJL #EvidenceBasedJustice #MiscarriagesOfJustice #FalseConfession #PostOfficeScandal

Suggestive interviewing, vulnerable suspects, and the Line of Duty Season 6 opener

Suggestive Interviewing, Vulnerable Suspects, and the Line of Duty Season 6 Opener

The first episode of Season 6 of Line of Duty aired on BBC One on 21st March. The series follows investigations of AC-12, a specialist unit investigating police corruption. The first episode was described as returning Line of Duty to what it does best, “dodgy coppers, tense action and characters who communicate almost exclusively in acronyms.” One particularly interesting feature of the episode was the police interview of a suspect with Down syndrome, Terry Boyle (Tommy Jessop), who is arrested on suspicion of murder. The interview was filled with inappropriate questions that would be highly problematic in practice. Although legal regulation (e.g. the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) mean such interviewing would be unlikely to occur in practice, it is still important for suspects and lawyers to recognise potentially problematic questioning. In light of evidence suggesting a ‘CSI’ effect, where the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science and investigation on crime television shows can influence perceptions of the justice system, it is important that fictional shows avoid normalising problematic interviewing techniques.

So, why was the interviewing in line of duty so problematic? First, the interview involved a police officer feeding the suspect details about the case and relevant evidence (e.g., evidence relating to the fingerprints of others found at a crime scene). Giving this type of information to suspects is problematic, since the information can influence the defendants own account by influencing the information that they have about the offence. Where details become known to a suspect during a police interview through exposure to facts about the crime, they come to know this information second-hand. In the example above, a suspect given this information at interview will now have information about the crime scene (e.g., that a specific person was likely to have been at the crime scene). The fact that this information is known by the defendant can come to be seen as incriminating at a later stage of the criminal investigation and trial. This is likely to be particularly important for certain vulnerable defendants who may have a more limited ability to monitor and regulate their memory, and can confuse suggestions with experiences. In court, jurors may be convinced by the fact that the suspect knows facts they could not have known unless they were the true perpetrator, particularly where the suspect does not remember that these facts were given to them by the police.

Lawyers have argued that this type of interviewing led to the alleged false conviction of Brendan Dassey in the United States. They argue that details given by Dassey in his court case did not originate with him but were fed to him during police interviews. For example, they allege that Dassey knew details of the weapon used in an offence as a result of these being fed to him by police.

In Line of Duty this “feeding” of information is combined with the use of leading questions (e.g., did you carry out a thorough cleaning of the property in order to destroy forensic evidence?”). These types of questions can be problematic, particularly with vulnerable defendants, who may have a response bias that leads them to answer “yes” to questions. Some vulnerable groups, including children, do not necessarily have the ability to understand the background knowledge of an interviewer. They may think the interviewer already knows information, and then refrain from going against what they are suggesting even where they do not believe that it is correct.

The fictional interview also shows officers presenting information, including complex forensic information (e.g. relating to gunshot residue) without ensuring understanding of that information or its probative value. Suspects presented with this kind of evidence may end up believing that the police have stronger evidence than they do. This belief can lead them to plead guilty to an offence despite being innocent, or even in some circumstances to come to believe that they actually may have committed an offence that they have not committed. The potential problems with gunshot residue evidence were highlighted in the case of Barry George, who was convicted and then acquitted of murder (https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/case/barry-george/). Forensic evidence at his initial trial showed a particle of gunshot residue on Mr. George’s coat, but experts later testified that this residue was just as likely to have come from another source as it was to have come from a gun fired by Mr George. Mr George’s conviction was quashed on this basis, but only after he had spent seven years in prison.

In reality, any vulnerable suspect being interviewed would have access to an appropriate adult (https://www.appropriateadult.org.uk/) with the job of safeguarding their interests, entitlement, and welfare. Among other things, appropriate adults can check whether a person understands the meaning and significance of information presented to them, and helping a person to understand the meaning and significance of information and questions.

Ensuring appropriate interviewing is important in both avoiding wrongful convictions and avoiding wrongful acquittals, since once improper interviewing has taken place the value of what might otherwise have been good evidence is compromised. Luckily in practice police uphold high standards in conducting interviews, however it’s still important to remember where mistakes might occur.

For more information on false confessions and false memories in real cases in England and Wales see our wiki pages: