Bristol law students help win appeal over man's robbery conviction
A pro bono legal clinic staffed by Bristol law students has secured an appeal for a man who has spent more than 30 years trying to clear his name for a conviction he was imprisoned for.
The University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP), a centre which teaches law through working on real cases of alleged wrongful convictions, has this week made a breakthrough in the case of William 'Wullie' Beck.
At the age of 20 Mr Beck was arrested for an armed robbery of a post van in Livingston, Scotland on December 16, 1981. He served six years of imprisonment for his conviction, which was based exclusively on eyewitness identification.
Although Mr Beck claims he was in Glasgow the entire day at the time of the robbery, some 40 miles away from where the crime occurred, he was convicted on the positive identification of two eyewitnesses despite other witnesses not identifying Mr Beck in an identity parade.
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For more than three decades Mr Beck has protested his innocence, claiming he is a victim of eyewitness misidentification.
He has made two previous unsuccessful applications to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), and numerous complaints about how the police conducted the identification parade and the conduct of his legal representatives at trial - to no avail.
But, under the guidance of Dr Michael Naughton, postgraduate law students Mark Allum and Ryan Jendoubi at the UoBIP have secured Mr Beck an appeal, after spending almost 2,000 hours working on the case pro bono and on top of their compulsory studies.
The SCCRC announced this week they have referred Mr Beck’s case back to the High Court of Justiciary after agreeing his conviction may be unsafe.
Writing on his website, Mr Beck thanked the UoBIP: “Without their help I have no doubt the SCCRC would not have referred my case,” he said. “I will be forever in their debt”.
Reflecting on the news, UoBIP founder Dr Naughton said: “This is a really important milestone in Mr Beck’s fight to clear his name and get his conviction overturned.
“In most of the cases we deal with they have been in prison for decades. It’s unusual that we are working on the case of someone who is not in prison.
“But we were particularly interested because of how flimsy the evidence was against him. In the US almost 300 cases are overturned and 75 per cent of them were based on eye-witness identification, so we know how much of a problem this is.
“It rang an alarm bell in our heads and we looked into it, and there are so many problems.
“This is Mr Beck’s third appeal to the Scottish CCRC, he has complained about the police and his lawyers; he once chained himself to the doors of the Scottish CCRC.
“He has never stopped trying to overturn his conviction, and that was an indication to us. For people to do that they are either completely deluded or there must be something more to it. It makes it interesting.”
Turning to the students responsible for the breakthrough, Mark Allum and Ryan Jendoubi, Dr Naughton said: “They need a big shout out. It’s incredible commitment to the case. They deserve so much credit”.
The University of Bristol Innocence Project is the first innocence project in the UK. Established in January 2005 by Dr Naughton, the UoBIP investigates cases of alleged victims of wrongful conviction who have exhausted the normal appeals process and legal aid, with the aim of clearing their names.
Intensely supervised by academic staff and, if necessary, assisted by forensic scientists and criminal appeal lawyers, the UoBIP assists those who are found to be potentially innocent.
It makes applications and submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission or the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to support a referral of the case back to the Court of Appeal (in England and Wales) or the High Court of Justiciary (in Scotland).
The UoBIP is also the founding member of the Innocence Network UK (INUK), an umbrella organisation which has helped set up 34 Innocence projects based in universities across England, Scotland and Wales.
Mr Beck’s case is the first referral of an alleged miscarriage of justice by an Innocence Project for a case in Scotland.
Some 90 University of Bristol students work on the Innocence Project, taking on cases in teams of three. The project is extra-curricular, meaning the students dedicate hours of their time to it in addition to their studies.
“I supervise them and give them cases, but it’s their creativity,” said Dr Naughton. “They get into relationships with their peers, they think outside the box”.
Dr Naughton explained that although 80 per cent of the people the project deals with turn out not to be innocent, the team still deems such an outcome a success. “It’s about settling a claim one way or the other,” he said.
Dr Naughton, who founded the Innocence Network UK after studying miscarriages of justice for his PhD, outlined the difficulties his teams face in getting convictions overturned: “Sometimes they [the review commission] look at our work and they say ‘yes, you’ve undermined the evidence against them [the candidate] but this is work their defence lawyers could have done, it’s not fresh evidence’.
“It’s so frustrating for them and their families, and they don’t give up. We have got families who have given their entire lives to fighting.
“In the case of Mr Beck his daughters have grown up with a father whose life has been consumed with trying to get his conviction overturned.”
Dr Naughton added that nine out of 10 applications for appeal get knocked back, “so Mr Beck has already gotten over a major hurdle”.
Reflecting on Mr Beck’s chances of success, Dr Naughton said fifty per cent of cases referred by the Scottish CRCC are successful, “but those are crude statistics”.
He added: “We don’t want to celebrate too much. A massive hurdle has been overcome but we need to focus our minds and do the best we can to help Mr Beck in his fight.
“We think he has a strong change, but we want to play it safe and keep fighting”.
To find out more about the University of Bristol Innocence Project, click here.