In January of 2001, 16-year-old Daniel Dale was shot in the Collyhurst area of Manchester. The bullet pierced his heart and he eventually died from the wound.
According to his mother, Dale had never been involved with gangs. However, his best friend had recently been fatally stabbed in Manchester's Cheetham Hill – home to the notorious Cheetham Hill Gang – and Dale was due to give evidence about the killing when he was shot in the back, allegedly by a member of the Cheetham Hill Gang.
The man eventually convicted of Dale's shooting, Dwaine George, was a member of that gang, and the case against him had initially been considered strong. However, during the court proceedings much of the evidence was discredited through witness cross-examination.
By the end of the trial the case was looking thin, but George was convicted anyway, largely on the basis of forensic evidence. Tiny particles of gunshot residue found on his jacket were enough, as the jury saw it, to prove him responsible for Dale's murder.
Skip forward almost 14 years to the 9th of December. After serving 13 years in prison, George's legal team managed to have his conviction quashed at London's Court of Appeal. More incredible still is that George's legal team consisted of a group of law students from Cardiff University and two of their lecturers.
Those who worked on George's case are part of The Innocence Project, a pro bono, university-run body of academics and students who take up cases where they believe someone is innocent of a crime they're convicted for. They do this with a view to overturning wrongful convictions for prisoners and ex-prisoners, especially those protesting their innocence over murder convictions.
The scheme was first created in the United States in 1994, and several British universities have now adopted the model, helping to provide a vital service for people in a system where legal aid is drastically underfunded – and becoming more so – due to Tory cuts.
Sarah Magill, who was 24 when she worked on George's case, has since left university and is now a criminal lawyer handling serious cases involving sex offences, drugs, robbery, firearms and murder in Lancaster Crown Court.
Sarah joined The Innocence Project as a team member while at Cardiff, but as she'd previously worked with criminal lawyers she was soon running her own team and placed in charge of the George case when it was submitted in 2006.
"[Dwaine] presented as a very intelligent, eloquent gentleman – we established a rapport very quickly," she told us. "Meeting him was vital, as he filled in all the blanks and provided a holistic view of the case one simply cannot achieve from reading the papers alone."
When we asked Sarah whether she believed George to be innocent, her response was emphatic.
"Yes, I was convinced from the first read of the papers," she said. "I have always been convinced that Dwaine was not present at the scene of the shooting that tragically killed Daniel, and am only sad that it took so long. I firmly believe the police will discover the true murderer and that Dale's family will one day achieve justice."
Caitlin Gallagher also worked on George's case. "I got involved with The Innocence Project as it was part of the reason I chose to study at Cardiff Law School," she said. "It's a unique opportunity to work on real cases – there's a chance to make a difference to an individual's life. I'm still convinced that [Dwaine] did not commit this crime. It matters that the students believe there to have been a miscarriage of justice as it motivates them to continue working on the case. This is why Dwaine's team worked so tirelessly on his case between 2006 and 2010."
Although not directly involved with George's case, 23-year-old Rhiannon Hughes worked on cases with The Innocence Project from her second year of university, continuing after she graduated in 2012. She's deeply passionate about miscarriages of justice, inspired by books she had read on the topic. One book she told us about details the murder of Billie-Jo Jenkins, in which Jenkins' father Sion was initially convicted and sentenced to jail, before later having his conviction overturned.
"When people come to consult a lawyer, it's usually not for a very good reason," she said. "If we're able to assist someone through a very difficult time in their lives, I find that very rewarding. Sometimes you can see a real difference between the client you see in the first instance and the client you say goodbye to at the end of the process."
How do the students decide which cases to take on? "Some prisoners write to us directly, and sometimes we have barristers and solicitors writing to us," says Rhiannon. "We also have a contact at the prisoner magazine Inside Time; she'll give us news and write articles about The Innocence Project. They're usually serious offences – murder, GBH and sexual assault – which makes it all the more important."
When asked how they had managed to get George's case overturned, she told us: "New scientific evidence came to light. The new evidence [...] about the gunshot residue meant the jury threw out what happened at trial."
Since the trial in 2001, an amount of gunshot residue as tiny as that found on George's jacket is no longer considered significant enough to base a conviction. It the main reason his conviction was finally quashed.
Julie Price is the lecturer who introduced The Innocence Project to Cardiff and, with her colleague, helped to guide the students through the long-winded process. "They're still quite idealistic about the law, which is great," she says. "They're attracted by the idea of social justice, I suppose – and there's no grander thought than getting someone out of prison who shouldn't be there."
How did the students – and George – react to the news of the acquittal?"[Dwaine] is relieved, because he said from day one that it wasn't him who did it," she told us. "He has absolute respect for the victim of the family. It isn't right to say anyone's celebrating. We're not at all. I suppose [we're] relieved that this can be done, even though it takes such a long time. A group of students working under supervision can actually achieve a wrongful conviction being overturned. It's significant, but we're mindful always of the victim's family, as they have to go through all this again."
It's understandable, of course, that – despite The Innocence Project's achievement – there's not a whole lot of air punching going on. Dale's mother has already made it clear that she believes the responsibility is on George to reveal who really killed her son.
When we asked Julie whether lawyers should be doing more pro bono work, she said it was a complex question, but argued: "As legal aid gets eaten away at even more, you're going to see more miscarriages of justice. Definitely. There's no doubt about that."
Tory cuts to legal aid mean there's less and less money available to those caught up in a criminal case who – like George – can't afford to pay for their own lawyers. This is clearly far from ideal, as the criminal law firms that are best placed to take on pro bono work are now, according to Sarah Magill, too stretched to accept cases.
For now, The Innocence Project is doing all that it can to plug that gap. But there are only so many cases a team of students and their lecturers can accept.
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