An American nightmare in Yorkshire

3 November 1997
The Guardian

"It couldn't happen here," was the unanimous reaction of the British legal establishment to the Louise Woodward affair. Everyone seems to agree that the young woman's wrongful conviction was the fault of an alien system which exposes itself to the media and relies far too heavily on the judgment of irrational, vulgar juries, uncontrolled by rational well-bred judges.

While this view was being ceaselessly proclaimed, hardly anyone noticed the publication of another book on another monstrous injustice perpetrated by good old British bobbies, by good old British scientists and good old British courts, where juries are firmly directed by good old British judges and where the media and the public are kept in good old British ignorance of the important facts.

The book, Innocents, tells the story of Stefan Kiszko, the bemused tax clerk, who had never been in trouble with the law in his life when he was arrested in December 1975 for the horrific sexual murder of 11-year-old Lesley Molseed.

After two days' relentless interrogation by West Yorkshire detectives, Kiszko signed a confession to the murder. Though he subsequently complained that the confession was bullied out of him, he was sent for trial, prosecuted by Peter Taylor, who later became Lord Chief Justice, and defended by David Waddington, who later became Home Secretary.

After what seemed a perfectly fair trial, he was packed off to a life of hell in prison. Fourteen years later, his determined lawyer, Campbell Malone, petitioned the Home Office to re-open the case, which was referred back to the West Yorkshire police.

Detective Supt Trevor Wilkinson, one of the authors of this book, was surprised to discover that although Kiszko was infertile, the semen on the body of the murdered girl contained heads of sperm. After anxious interviews with doctors, Wilkinson concluded not just that Kiszko was innocent, but that the information about the semen was known to the police officer in charge at the time, and had not been disclosed.

The injustice had nothing to do with trial procedure or the comparative rationality of judge and jury. There was only one reason for it. Vital information exculpating Kiszko was not disclosed. Kiszko was released after 16 years in prison. He and his mother died soon afterwards.

In 1994, a police officer and Home Office forensic scientist were charged with suppressing the vital evidence. The case was dismissed by a magistrate. The reasons included the fact that the police officer in charge of the case had died and the long passage of time.

By then, the law on disclosure had gradually improved. Police, prosecution and judges accepted that everything relevant to the case must be disclosed. All this progress was thrown into reverse by Michael Howard's Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act last year which placed the duty to decide what or what not to disclose on a single policeman called "a disclosure officer".

A more ridiculous formula, or one more likely to lead to a repeat of injustices, could not be imagined. The Act, moreover, makes it a contempt of court for a defence lawyer or a client to disclose to a third party official statements they uncover in the course of their inquiry. This clause threatens the co-operation between lawyers and journalists which has such a vital role in exposing past injustices. Innocents, for instance, is written by a barrister, a journalist and a police officer.

A welcome appointment in the new parliament is that of the seasoned campaigner for justice, Chris Mullin, as chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. His committee should urgently investigate the disclosure sections of Howard's Act and dispose of them, or there will be many more Stefan Kiszkos to accuse and mock British justice.

HEARKEN to Chris Oakley, chief executive of Midland Independent Newspapers, which, like the other "Independent" newspapers, have been swallowed by David Montgomery and the Mirror Group.

In 1990, Oakley staged a management buy-out (MBO) of the Birmingham Post and Mail. He tells the Press Gazette (sick bags at the ready, please): "I know this sounds like an old cliche and nobody will believe it, but I don't think anybody in our team started out with the thought 'let's do an MBO and make money'. I think we started out to do it because we saw excellent newspapers we could continue to improve and build on that we didn't want to fall into the hands of people who might not cherish them as we would."

Quite right, Chris. It does sound like a cliche and nobody will believe it. After all, you've sold the papers you cherish to David Montgomery, the Grand Cherisher of Canary Wharf. But I suppose the excruciating pain of that surrender will be helped a little by something else you can cherish: the #3m the sale puts in your pocket.

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