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Miscarriage of justice

  • Posted on May 20, 2012 at 9:42 am

If you read much of what I write here you may be getting fed up with my love of metaphor. I think in pictures, because they make more at-a-glance sense. But they do of course only show one aspect of a truth, and if I tell a story about a house I don’t expect to have to work out where the loo is and what it means! So don’t stretch it too far …

Some time last year I began thinking about this as a concept for a poem. I did eventually write one, but I think I want to revisit it a lot more before I let it go. It has a depth of feeling that is difficult to convey in any other way, and yesterday I was reminded of it.

A young man was released yesterday, after his conviction for murder was quashed in the courts. People believed in him, fought in places he could not, and despite previous refusal to appeal, today he is back home for the first time in eight years. It makes me think: what was I doing, where was I, how old were my kids, eight years ago. Scary.

There may not be thousands of these cases each year, but there are too many, and every one a tragedy. As usual, it was a mixture of police incompetence, processes not being followed, disadvantage feeding opinion. And my thoughts last year were about the courtroom, the trial and the intense, exclusive loneliness of being an innocent defendant. Place yourself there now, set the scene (ever done jury service? It helps.) and feel yourself in it. There is a prosecution that has just one task, to do their best to prove that you are guilty. They are being paid very handsomely to do so, on the premise that if the defence cannot succeed, you must be guilty. Yes, it’s the ducking stool again in some ways.

There is your defence. These are people, equally well paid, who do not act out of any belief or knowledge in who you are, in what you are, or in what you may or may not have done. These too are mechanics of the court, dealing only with what they have been given, using it to best advantage to demonstrate at least a lack of convincing evidence against you.

Convince and convict. Persuade, overcome, vanquish. It is a battle, and you yourself are not even a combatant. You are already a prisoner. You get your say, but a lot of the time it is felt the professionals can say it better and more safely than you. And what you do say allows for no trips and stumbles, and when you have said it, it is just another piece of evidence with equal weight to every other utterance in the court. Imagine them, as the trial proceeds, as strips of paper being scattered over the floor. Some are partially true. Some are ambiguous. Many are irrelevant and a few are misleading, almost to the point of perjury. And there are spaces waiting for pieces that will never arrive.

You, as an innocent defendant, are the only person in that court who knows that your little, few, strips of paper are the truth. Everyone else may doubt to some degree, and all must balance your presentation of truth against everything else that has been said. Even the imputations and accusations, the seeds of doubt, the persuasive argument against you: they carry equal weight in this court.

You are the only person who has nothing to decide. What intense loneliness. We can only try to imagine what it must be like then, to be an innocent person, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated.

My truth

We do, of course, also know that many people in court have decided they are innocent because it wasn’t their fault, and they are there through neglect of responsibility, not doing the right thing, and becoming involved where they should not. There are those genuinely deluded about their actions. Each of these has an idea of their truth too, and it may quite rightly not be that of a court of law. That is not what I am painting a picture of. I am just trying to place you in the mind of a truly innocent person whose life is changed forever and irrevocably because even though they possess the truth, there is no way they can donate that knowledge to any other person. The truth is subservient to opinion, informed well or otherwise.

Each of us has our idea of the truth. It is our truth, and it is not out there somewhere. It is what keeps us safe and sane, and it is our foundation for living honestly. It is the security on which we can direct and change our actions, habits and preferences, and it is where we can release our other prisoners, those things we would like to be part of the truth, but cannot in honesty hang onto.

The context in which I first explored this feeling of being the only one in the world who knows the truth (and may come to doubt it because for everyone else it is just a discussion so maybe I am wrong after all), was of course me. In a sense I feel that I have undergone a miscarriage of justice, in which I too have been complicit, for 55 years (or as an articulate participant, for at least 50 years). And now I feel my conviction has been quashed.

Somewhere today a young man is trying to understand what it means to celebrate after eight years in prison. I expect he has very mixed feelings, with an open door, with people around him accusing him of nothing, with no preconceptions, and perhaps most of all, knowing he is no longer ‘not one of them’, the innocent among the guilty, who all presume he also is one of them. As he steps back out into the world, seeks employment, somewhere to live his own life, he will forever encounter people who think he must have done something wrong. He is an ex-con, quashed, released, or not. No smoke without fire, not ‘innocent’ just the lucky recipient of an unsafe conviction.

This week, I received another statement of unsafe conviction: my passport, marked ‘Sex: F’

It arrived a day after an unfortunate conversation, in which I was being told I was just a man underneath (they’re women’s clothes, you understand), and that for my own safety I should behave differently. I didn’t inquire as to whether this meant I should dress up as a man, in disguise, or that I should cross my legs rather than use the ladies’ loos, or whether I should go armed with a pepper spray, a rape alarm, and stick close to my Royal Marines colleagues. The threat? Supposedly, since I was playing in a band alongside children who all had ‘normal᾿ parents, I may be subject to transphobia. And for the sake of my own safety, I had better pretend that I am not a woman. Well, I stated my truth to these folk, I played a very enjoyable concert, the kids were brilliant, I helped all through the reception and interval at the raffle table. And no-one seemed to even notice me. OK, I did look rather lovely anyway – at least that’s what other people said to me!

The parallel? My miscarriage of justice is over, the assignment of ‘male’ is formally considered unsafe, and I am no longer wrongly assumed to be ‘one of them’. But everywhere there will be someone who remembers where I used to be in prison, who remembers that people are there for a reason, and who will not wish to be associated with me lest it damage their social status or sense of self. After all, I might be harmful. And it only takes one of them to call me a (potential, of course) pervert to another person, and they feel safe while actually placing me in danger. They are saying ‘I am afraid of what you are, so you had better carry a pepper spray’.

My truth? I don’t want it to be compared with all those little bits of evidence people might use to ‘balance’ what I say about my gender. It is my truth. But only I know it.

My door is open, I have people around me who helped me get out of jail. But it can still be very lonely.