‘My Friend Tom’
An ex police officer discovers the truth about crime and punishment
The above words were uttered by Russian novelist Fyodor Dosto- evsky who lived from 1821 to 1881 and never have they been brought home more dramatically to me than of late.
Six months ago, a friend of mine was sentenced to some thirteen years imprisonment following a weeklong trial at Crown Court for nearly 20 charges of historic indecency offences with five children. All of the children knew each other extremely well. Indeed, some of them were not only related to each other but to my friend in turn.
My friend, who I shall call ‘Tom’, was condemned by a Judge as having a ‘sinister and depraved’ character and now languishes in a prison having led an unblemished life in entertainment and publishing. Well known in the local community, he was widely respected and regarded as being kind, dependable and generous.
My background is entirely different. For that reason I have also asked that my name be withheld because, as many will be surprised to learn, I retired a few years ago following 30 years in the police service where I had investigated crimes and their perpetrators both as a uniformed policeman and then on CID. Thirty years which saw me doing my best but which left me feeling a distinct sense of unease at some of the things I saw and heard towards the end of my career.
Now I appreciate that not everyone likes the police and often there is good reason for feeling that way. There is corruption and there are bad police officers but there are also some very fair ones constricted perhaps by the plethora of rules and frequent political interference by inept and transient politicians. I was glad to walk away at the end, needless to say!
The first I knew of Tom’s plight was when he rang me to tell me of the police investigation following allegations made by these girls. Not being privy to the statements at that time, I could only base my advice given to him on what he told me and the fact that he insisted he was innocent of any of the allegations. Ultimately and knowing the system as I do, I advised him to get a good, investigative lawyer and to have little to say to the police or anyone else unless he had first spoken to that lawyer. As it happened, my initial feeling was that Tom was indeed innocent and I was very shocked to hear of the allegations.
A very long and agonising time later, he appeared in the local Magistrates Court and his case was sent to the Crown Court for trial. That length of time was inhumane and I watched helplessly as my friend declined in health due to the enormous stresses and burdens placed upon him.
Tom pleaded not guilty and was duly represented by a Barrister funded by legal aid.
I did not attend the trial but received daily reports from Tom and his supporters. Essentially, Tom stood alone whilst the prosecution witnesses gave their evidence against him remotely by video link. Odd really, given that they had been freely associating with him right up until the start of the police investigation.
Amazingly, the defence called no character witnesses for Tom and all the jury heard was the allegations of those five witnesses. There was no forensic evidence, no corroboration by professionals such as doctors or social workers, merely their words and there was even clear information that they had colluded and planned what they would say. Their motive was clear for, as one of them pointed out, they were after money in the form of compensation, not that that fact ever emerged in open court.
My friend really didn’t stand a chance quite frankly and I was with him on the day he was ‘sent down’.
I saw the devastation in him and I felt angry. Angry that his defence had been half hearted, angry that there had been no investigative work carried out by the defence and angry at the obvious bias of the Judge. In my very humble opinion Tom had not received a fair trial and had been treated appallingly. A cut price legal aid funded defence had let him down.
Before my first prison visit, I saw Tom’s life in the community disappear. His rented home was emptied of his possessions and everything sold off.
I spoke to the person he had entrusted the closing down of his affairs with and together we read through Tom’s copy of the prosecution case. I was shocked once again as I identified flaw after flaw in the file, a shoddy and half hearted police investigation and an even shoddier defence. Over a period of several weeks, I took the case apart and as Tom dealt with the harsh realities of his new life, I prepared a huge list of matters worthy of further investigation and which should have been properly addressed by his legal team.
Then I made the long journey to the prison where he was being held, and having been searched thoroughly, met up with him. I was glad to be told by him that he continued to maintain his innocence. I listened as he flagged up issues which were of concern to him and then of his life in the prison itself.
Tom is a state pensioner. I was more than surprised when he told me that his state pension had been taken from him. I question the legality of this and believe that this is a direct contravention of many basic rights. He shared a cell with a broken window with an old blanket stuffed in it and with an open toilet in the room. Meals, if they could ever be called such, were taken in the cell within feet of the toilet. A broken down television paid for out of his meagre allowance was his only entertainment as such and his cell mate was in his 80s and wanted to die.
I felt very depressed indeed at his plight and for the first time in a while, I felt helpless. I realised that frequent reports in the Daily Mail of a luxury life style in prison were grossly exaggerated but I did not expect standards to be so poor.
I looked around the meeting area and saw old men, many on sticks, some in wheelchairs and a few in tears and it was brought home to me that there is something very wrong in a society which treats human beings like this. Now, I am not suggesting that criminal acts should go unpunished, far from it, but I seriously question the effectiveness and reasonability of sending old men to prison where many of them will die.
Tom explained that due to staff shortages he spent hours locked up in his cell and that the highlight of a meal was swiftly demolished by the reality of half a cup of soup, a white bread roll and a broken up packet of crisps.
Meanwhile the work outside continued as we shopped around for a more suitable lawyer to take on a possible appeal. I realise that just as with the police, there are good, average and bad lawyers and I knew that what would be needed was one with some record of success and a bit of aggression.
A few months later, Tom was transferred to another prison and by that time we had identified a lawyer. We put him in touch with Tom and so the lengthy process began. For a cool £2,500, we could secure a review of the case and a legal opinion on the possibility of an appeal. Well the money has been paid and the file and court transcripts including the Judge’s summing up have been sent for.
A copy of my lengthy analysis has also been sent to the new lawyer and I trust he reads it. As I concluded, I would have been ashamed to have put my name to the investigation yet alone the case management.
I visited Tom last week. He is making the most of his time inside and clinging on to the hope of an appeal. How that will be financed is yet to be determined though.
Again, he is locked in from 5.30pm until 8am daily, fed on an inadequate and unhealthy diet, subject to a system of requests for any variances dogged by quite unnecessary and needlessly inflexible bureaucracy, denied the right to participate in more than one type of spiritual activity, confined to purchases made within the slow prison regime and surrounded by many, many others in the same situation.
That so many self harm and attempt suicide or even give up the will to live comes as little surprise to me because to survive the experience of such confinement calls for a certain type of person. Inner belief in oneself is certainly all important.
I looked around the room again during my last visit to see different inmates but still with old folks shuffling around on sticks and in wheelchairs.
There are some who are hopeful in the appeals process and seeing the appalling levels of evidence currently being used to convict people in an increasingly vindictive, post Savile society, I know that I am not alone in realising that innocent men are now being convicted on the most questionable of evidence.
The current focus on a miscarriage of justice is Hillsborough. I am shocked to hear of the many irregularities emerging but also realise that such things were common back then. Senior police officers instructing more junior ones to change their statements was a frequent occurrence in the 1970s and 80s and now the full truth is finally emerging. Many of those junior officers, now retired, are rightly speaking out.
I also fully expect that in time to come, the current policy of convicting people on what we used to call unsubstantiated hearsay will also bring about a call for an investigation into miscarriages of justice. I certainly hope so.
I wish all those who know inwardly that they are innocent well and I say, believe in yourself and never give up and get a lawyer who investigates and not one who merely reviews the prosecution case as presented. There are people like me around who were part of the system and who now see it for what it is, for what I and others see in prisons is appalling and inhumane and not compatible with a first world country and is also expensively ineffective.
This writer wishes to remain anonymous.
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