Wednesday, March 04, 2015

We need to talk about our police

Last night, in what may be the last appeal of its type, the British Privy Council overturned the conviction of Teina Pora. Its unclear at this stage whether there will be a retrial, but at this stage its hard to imagine one succeeding. I'm pleased to see a miscarriage of justice overturned, and hopefully Pora will be receiving compensation for his ruined life (though really, how can money compensate for the state robbing you of twenty years, your ability to function in modern society, and your relationship with your children? It can't). But once again, this raises serious questions about our justice system and the checks and balances within it.

The Police are making much of how, in dismissing Pora's "confessions" as unreliable, the Privy Council found that police did not exert pressure on him and were "fastidiously correct in their treatment of him". That may have been true within the interview room itself. However, the context paints a different picture. Faced with a suspect they knew was making unreliable statements (he had named others, who were cleared by alibis and DNA evidence), instead of dismissing them entirely, they built a case around one of them. When that case was overturned on appeal after Malcolm Rewa was convicted, they bribed witnesses to secure a conviction at retrial. Since then, they've steadfastly refused to admit that they did anything wrong, or that Pora may not have been the man they're after. In the process, not only have they ruined an innocent man's life - they've also let a guilty one go free. To be clear, the only reason Malcolm Rewa has not been convicted of Susan Burdett's murder is because the police didn't do their fucking job properly in 1993, fixated on Pora as an easy way of clearing the case off their books, and in the process created reasonable doubt for the actual criminal. Now that's a better work story!

The police will no doubt tell us that things are different today, that they actually investigate crimes rather than stitching up the first brown kid who falls into their hands, and that they have better institutional safeguards to prevent them from building cases around fantasies. I guess we'll find out in twenty years time when their current victims are struggling for justice.

So how do we stop this from happening again? Preventing police from relying on uncorroborated "confessions" at trial would be a good start, because they just seem to result in innocent people in jail. But its also clear that we need better review mechanisms that just the courts. The UK has a Criminal Cases Review Commission to review dubious convictions and refer potential miscarriages of justice back to the courts; after Thomas, Dougherty, Bain and Pora, its clear that we need one here too.