Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Eighteen Years in Prison because a box remained locked

In 1992 Paula Gilfoyle was found hanged in a garage, and despite the fact that there was a suicide note in her own handwriting her husband was found guilty of murdering her, in effect because she was not the kind of person who would have killed herself. Her husband repeatedly claimed his innocence and two appeals against the conviction were dismissed . After 18 years in prison he was released on parole. An important part of the case against him was that the suicide note was completely out of character with Paula's state of mind, so her husband must have forced her to write it. Many people thought it all sounded very improbable at the time.

So what has now happened, at least according to The Times. At the time of her death the police took, as evidence, a locked box and the defence only learnt of its existence and contents in 2010. The box contained Paula's diary – which revealed an earlier suicide attempt which the court had not been told about, and two suicide notes written by former boyfriends – one of which was echoed in the note her husband was alleged to have dictated. The case is currently being re-assessed in light of the new evidence about Paula's mental state and it seems likely that the verdict will be overturned. There is also likely to be an enquiry as to why clearly vital evidence was withheld from the defence at the time of the original trial and the subsequent appeals.

In part this case highlight a problem with the adversarial legal system which is devoted to allocating guilt – rather than finding out what actually happened and why, but looking at the evidence in a neutral way. If your job is to find someone guilty it is very easy, possibly even subconsciously, to leave on one side leads which may weaken your case. If this means leaving some documents in a box so that no-one knows of their existence, your excuse is that it was merely an oversight and of course you were not deliberately withholding evidence from the defence.`

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