THE PROBLEMS OF RELEASING INNOCENT MEN
- what happens when an innocent man leaves jail after being freed on appeal.
( This article was written by Peter Hill for the 1997 lecture brochure. It tells what happened to one of Tom Sargant's cases)
THE FORGOTTEN MAN
As the Criminal Case Review Commission continues to clean up the huge backlog of miscarriage of justice cases, it will find that it has an extra responsibility that few ever experience. In different forms I have met it with Francis and Michael McDonagh, John Walters, Margaret Livesey, George Beattie and Anthony Mycock. But the problem is best exemplified in on of Tom Sargant's most famous cases which I turned into a TV programme in 1982.
It was the case of Mervyn 'Jock' Russell . His was the first case in which Lord Lane had to admit the system had jailed an innocent man.
As Russell emerged from Court no 4 he was actually shaking like a stage drunk. He had what they call 'gate fever'. One minute before he had been on a life sentence. Now he was a free man - with fifty pence in his pocket.
He was also the 'man of the moment', interviewed by Radio 4's PM programme, LBC, BBC Television News, ITN and a host of print journalists. Later, it was to be "Newsnight" - a long way from HM Prison, Parkhurst.
That night Russell slept on the sofa in the flat of his only friend, Richard Tribe. He had nowhere else to go. He still had his outdated prison clothes. He wore no tie, but the top button of his shirt was done up. That is the way he had to dress in prison and it had not occurred to him that 'outside' was significantly different. He was free, certainly, but he was a lot worse off than he had been eight years beforehand.
Financially, he had high hopes. His solicitor was already applying for compensation. This promised to be a long fight - because Russell's was the first such case in the eighties. This, however, would not buy a pie in Deptford High Street. Russell didn't understand why he should have to wait for the money. He told me he wanted to buy a small newsagents in Edinburgh and spend the rest of his life there. But none of us understood the effect that a lot of money would have on his life.
Russell signed on at the employment office. But there was no work for an ex-prisoner. So he went to the pub. People were only too pleased to talk with the man whose face had been in the papers and on television, but he was expected to buy the drinks. As far as they were concerned, Jock was famous. It was as if he had won the pools.
After a couple of days, any afterglow from the television lights had faded. Jock needed help from someone in the social services, so he went to the prison after-care service. It was the first time that the after-care office in Deptford had handled an ex-prisoner who had actually been declared innocent by no less a person that Lord Lane. They did their best. Like any other ex-con, he was given a chit for second hand clothing and shoes and placed on the list for a council flat.
When I realised that Jock would have to wait months for his compensation, I decided that something had to be done. I persuaded the BBC to make a film of Jock's rehabilitation into society. Although I had researched his life, I was now amazed when his family wrote to me from Edinburgh. They had seen the TV programme on him and wanted to take him back. This gave me the input I needed to make a second film about him. I could now finance a trip to Scotland..
His family were delightful people. They wept on Waverley Station at the return of the prodigal. They looked after him and fed him. He was soon dressed in a natty three-piece suit, with a decent haircut and a touch less of the prison pallor. Yet the signs of his being 'institutionalized' still prevailed. He still gave the same street-wise answers he had learned in jail. The BBC were still the men in the suits, the Establishment. He gave us answers he thought we wanted to hear.
Jock soon returned to Deptford. His only topics of conversation concerned murderers. Inside Parkhurst he was on a par with the Krays, Sutcliffe and Nilsen. Talk about such acquaintances and how horrible it was to be in prison did not go down well in quiet, bourgeois Edinburgh
After the film about his "rehabilitation" was finished and transmitted, Jock was truly alone. I kept in touch as best I could, but I was already producing the second series of "Rough Justice".
He was reasonably set up. The TV publicity had secured him a council flat. The first tranche of his compensation had come through. But the real problems were now beginning. A friend persuaded him to buy a car, though he couldn't drive - it was stolen within days. The same happened to TVs and videos he bought for his flat. And then a 19-year-old girl, a glue-sniffer, moved in with him. Her mother soon followed - " to help look after him". Russell certainly needed help, but he was hardly a good judge of what was the best help for him.
He hadn't had a woman in his bed for eight years. He had no concept of the value of money. He didn't even know the price of a loaf of bread. The two women spent his money like water. They bought furniture for his flat, then said they were tired of it. They threw it away - into their own home. When I went to visit him they refused to open the door to me. I had no powers, or even duties to do any more.
After the two women left, Jock locked himself in his flat for five days. He didn't answer the door. He mistrusted his solicitor. After all, it was the lawyers who had got him into this mess eight years before. There was no official help. The Social Services had forgotten about him. He was, after all, rich. What problems could he possibly have?
Yet he locked himself away as if he were in his old cell in Parkhurst. He bought a secondhand CB radio so that he could talk to people without them knowing his identity. He told me he would never trust another woman again, that he didn't trust anyone any more, that all the friends who had greeted him when he came out of prison had only been after his money. He was an outsider.
This is what we did to Jock Russell. We left him to the mercies of the Deptford underworld. He was fleeced. To be accepted into the local society he had to fall back into the accepted norm - and resort to petty crime. His dreams of spending the rest of his life running a newsagents in Edinburgh vanished.
What are we going to do about the many people who will soon be released because of the work of the CCRC? Are we to abandon them as we abandoned Jock Russell? We must acknowledge that society has done them a great harm. They cannot simply be returned to the streets where they lived before they were unjustly jailed. Money alone is not the answer.
Tom Sargant was the "ever-open ear" for all persons complaining of miscarriage of justice. He followed his cases even after the innocent person was released. But within JUSTICE, this was a one-man operation. When he died, this effort died too. The work of the Criminal Case Review Commission now makes it imperative that we re-create it.
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