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Britain Tries to Remedy Miscarriages of Justice

A series of wrongful convictions along with flawed police and courtroom proceedings have Britain's judicial system under scrutiny

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1995


Truck driver Kevin Callan had left school at age 16 without any academic qualifications. But a relentless determination to prove he was innocent of a murder for which he had been convicted drove him to become expert on studies of the human brain.

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After four years of study inside a prison cell, Mr. Callan forced Britain's legal authorities to admit that supposedly expert prosecution testimony at his trial had been wrong and that he had not been responsible for the death of a four-year-old child.

On April 6, 1995, Callan walked from Britain's Appeals Court a free man. He joined the ranks of a growing number of people wrongfully convicted by Britain's legal system who have had to be released from prison following campaigns to establish their innocence.

The last few years have seen a series of such instances, forcing the government to set up an independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice.

Most of the instances have centered on people accused of terrorist acts on behalf of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The cases of the "Birmingham Six," the "Maguire Seven," and the "Guildford Four," in which the accused were jailed for terrorist bombings, are perhaps the most notorious. They attracted huge publicity in Britain and around the world. Police evidence provided at their trials was later shown to be flawed.

Chris Mullin, a Labour party member of parliament who took a close and active interest in the Irish cases, says two key factors created the circumstances for injustices to occur.

"There was a highly charged political atmosphere," Mr. Mullin says, "because there was widespread revulsion against terrorist acts, particularly those carried out on the British mainland, and this inevitably had an effect on how the judicial process operated.

"Also, at the time it was not widely appreciated by the public at large that police evidence was crucial in influencing the outcome of trials," Mullin adds. "When the basis of that evidence was shown to be false or highly dubious, the cases had to collapse."

The Irish victims were fortunate in having champions such as Mullin acting on their behalf, whereas Callan had to rely on his own tenacity and courage in fighting for his freedom virtually single-handedly, and without the benefit of publicity in the early stages.

Michael Mansfield, Callan's legal counsel, says that like the better-known Irish cases, Callan's struggle exposed the "extraordinary reluctance" of the British authorities to concede that "terrible mistakes can be and are being made. There are obvious flaws in our justice system, and the Irish cases and that of Mr. Callan have served to expose them," he says.

Callan's long ordeal began on April 15, 1991 when he was looking after Amanda, the infant daughter of his partner, Lesley Allman, in the home they shared in Manchester, England.

Amanda was severely handicapped and often fell over in the house. She had done so twice that day, the second time fatally. Miss Allman returned home to find Callan trying unsuccessfully to resuscitate the child.

After a police investigation, Callan was charged with murder.

In the trial that followed, a key prosecution medical witness testified that the girl's death had been caused by her being violently shaken. The witness said he could see no sign of external bruises consistent with any fall.

Despite testimony by Allman that he loved Amanda and had never harmed her, Callan was sentenced to life in prison.

There, certain of his innocence, he asked the prison librarian to supply him with books about the human brain. "I thought that if I could find out how [the brain] works, I could learn how Mandy had died," he says.