Saturday, February 11, 2006

Guilty even after being found innocent?

At the newsagent this morning I noticed the Sun's screaming headline labelling the former deputy head teacher Sion Jenkins, who was acquitted this week of murdering his foster daughter in 1997, a coward for refusing to accept its challenge to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence.

The saying is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but this seems to be a case of guilty even after being found innocent. Perhaps more worrying than the Sun’s reaction, which was pretty much par for the course, was the Guardian’s front page headline on Friday: ‘Jenkins: the allegations of violence the jury never heard’ – these being accusations that he beat his wife and daughters.

I can’t claim to have followed this case closely. From what I have gleaned, however, Jenkins does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character, although people seldom do if they come to public attention through being accused of a particularly vile child murder.

But he has now been tried three times for this murder. On the latter two the jury did not reach a guilty verdict and he has now been acquitted. The forensic evidence that resulted in his conviction in his first trial was discredited, leading to the verdict being overturned. Whether or not we warm to him as a human being, Jenkins is entitled to be regarded as an innocent man.

The evidence that the jury did not get to hear was not directly relevant to the case. While clearly it was not in Jenkins’ interests for it to be heard by the court, the fact that it wasn’t means it can now be repeated without him having the chance to refute it in court. But even if he is a wife- and child-beater that doesn’t make him guilty of murder. Surely it should still be the case that people can only be found guilty of murder if there is enough evidence to convict, them rather than if they seem a thoroughly bad lot who should be kept in prison on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis.

This case seems to me to highlight a worrying trend in attitudes to our criminal justice system, which is epitomised by the government’s periodic attempts to change the judicial process to get a higher conviction rate for certain offences. Acquittal in a controversial case can no longer be explained by the suspect’s innocence, but instead must be a sign of perversity on the part of the judge or jury.

The journalist Bob Woffinden, who has campaigned on cases of miscarriages of justice, wrote in the wake of Jenkins’ original conviction that:

A handy rule-of-thumb for determining whether a correct verdict has been reached at a trial is this: the dodgier the conviction, the greater the smear job conducted immediately afterwards. If someone has been properly convicted, the police do not need to gild the lily when briefing the press. In this case the prosecution pulled out all the stops in its character assassination.

Certainly, after the original trial the press printed a series of stories accusing Jenkins variously of paedophilia and falsifying his cv. Now after his acquittal his character is being smeared again, with information that can appears to have come from the police.

However much or little sympathy one might have with Jenkins, this point is that if he is guilty of murder he should have been convicted by a jury and sent to prison. Now that he has been acquitted he should not be re-tried and deemed guilty by the press.

1 comment:

Angus J Huck said...

Amazingly, all of these "sensational" allegations about Sion Jenkins I already knew, because I had read them in the papers immediately after the original trial. They are absolutely nothing new.

Only evidence which is admissible goes before a jury. Evidence which suggests that the accused is a nasty person, but which does not directly indicate that he is guilty of the offences with which he is charged, does not.

That is how the trial process works. All newspaper editors know this, though most of their readers do not.

Perhaps Mr Murdoch and Mr Dacre would care to tell us how much members of the various families in this case have been paid for their "stories"?

And maybe Sussex Police will come clean about their frantic attempts to feed negative titbits to the press. This is the same Sussex Police, of course, which has a 100% record of failing to investigate complaints against Nicholas Van Hoogstraten.

Sion Jenkins is the sort of guy whom most policemen would normally admire - a right-wing disciplinarian bully - but what policemen really cannot stand is people getting things for nothing (or more than most policemen). Jenkins had a good job and a big house, and he got both with an Archerite CV. He really didn't stand a chance.

Now that Jenkins has been acquitted, perhaps the media will turn its attention to Michael Stone, Barry George and Abol-Basset Al-Magrahi, all of whom are quite obviously innocent and are basically political prisoners.