There’s a famous quote from the film Shawshank Redemption, when the main character Andy Dufresne tells another prison inmate: ‘Everybody in here’s innocent. Didn’t you know that?’
So when a young man convicted of murder steps forward and strongly protests his innocence, it’s often hard to keep an open mind. It’s still harder to accept that there has been a miscarriage of justice. We’d all like to think that juries, with their 12 independent, educated minds, can see through prosecution hyperbole and defence obfuscation to the truth.
Obviously there have been glaring examples of where this hasn’t happened. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Colin Stagg. But in the new millennium, with its CSI forensics, highly-trained police officers and professional lawyers?
The case of Sam Hallam (the murder of Essayas Kassahun) demonstrates how many things have changed, even in the last five years. CCTV is much more prevalent. Mobile phone evidence, showing who phoned who, at what time and at what rough location, is more precise. Scientists use new techniques to get DNA from much smaller samples than have previously been possible.
But eyewitness accounts and identification of suspects have been the basis of court cases for centuries. It’s also long been known that human memory is fallible, and that this has an impact on the legal process. We all have experience of its effects – ask 20 people at a football match about a goal or a tackle and you’ll get 20 different versions of the same event. But it may be that with the ‘CSI effect’ juries are now unwilling to accept witness evidence without backup from another source.
Even more ‘dangerous’ is the interaction of witnesses after the event, particularly when rumour comes into play. They may change their account – sometimes without realising it and sometimes out of a misguided attempt to achieve justice for the victim.
Having looked into reports of Sam Hallam’s trial in 2005, it’s clear that there wasn’t a great deal of interest in the case at the time, for whatever reason. There are limited reports on the BBC online, the Camden New Journal and Islington Gazette. The Press Association and the Central News court reporting agency filed short pieces on the opening of the case, the conviction and the sentencing hearing. The most detailed account found online was at the Sam Hallam Campaign website (now defunct), which appears to make use of court transcripts.
In Sam’s case there were two key witnesses who identified him as being present at the scene (although neither did in their initial statements to police). One of them, a 20 year-old man, said he saw Sam standing over the victim with a baseball bat. He said he had been ‘reminded of his name’ by they other key witness, a 19 year-old girl. This girl also identified Sam Hallam, saying she had heard a rumour that a ‘Sam’ was involved in the murder, although she did not state exactly how he was involved.
These are only a few of the inconsistencies, but sadly they are not unusual ones in a murder case. Witnesses are often unwilling to provide names straight away, either because they don’t want to ‘grass’ or because they fear retaliation. It’s also worth pointing out that the 20 year-old was treated as ‘hostile witness’ in court because he effectively withdrew his identification of Sam Hallam. This meant that his identification in his second police statement could be provided to the jury anyway.
It’s impossible to know how the jury reached their verdict, but it’s likely they would have had to decide whether the two witnesses genuinely identified Sam Hallam but felt uncomfortable doing so, were mistaken about their identification, or were trying to cobble evidence together out of rumour.
What Sam Hallam lacked in this situation was a provable defence (although by law he does not have to offer one). He did not answer questions in interview (lawyers almost always advise their clients not to) and his friend contradicted his claim to have been playing football.
But that was it. No forensics, or CCTV footage or phone evidence linking him to the murder. It’s no surprise many feel passionately that he has been wrongly convicted.
Sam is now 24, having served half of his minimum 12 year sentence. During his incarceration his father Terry has died but his family and friends have kept the campaign going. It is a tribute to their hard work and belief that his case was last week referred to the Court of Appeal due to the ‘real possibility that the Court of Appeal would quash the conviction.’
If they do, the court could then order a retrial. The prosecution would then have to assess if they have enough evidence against Sam Hallam to mount a case. It may be some time yet before Sam Hallam is freed.
The Sam Hallam campaign is holding a public meeting to discuss their next steps on Thursday 4 August 2011 at 7.30 pm in the Arden Estate Community Hall, Regan Way, Hoxton, north London.
UPDATE: On May 18, 2012, the prosecution withdrew their opposition to the appeal and the following day the murder conviction was quashed. His acquittal came after spending seven years behind bars.