Friday, 18 May 2007
Project to probe convictions
A United States-style innocence project aimed at overturning the wrongful convictions of New Zealanders has been established at Victoria University hot on the heels of David Bain having five murder convictions quashed.
Bain was freed on bail from prison into a media frenzy on Tuesday, five days after the Privy Council said he had suffered a substantial miscarriage of justice. The Solicitor-General has yet to decide whether Bain will face a retrial for the 1994 deaths of his three siblings and parents in their Dunedin home.
Victoria University Innocence Project director Dr Maryanne Garry said her team aimed to examine and prevent miscarriages of justice.
Bain, jailed at 23, had spent 12 years behind bars for murders he insisted he did not commit.
Following the lead of a New York project which has seen 200 Americans exonerated, New Zealand's Innocence Project will draw on psychological, legal and scientific expertise to probe criminal convictions.
Dr Mark Gerrie, a recent Victoria Psychology School PhD graduate, has been appointed to establish and run the school for two years with a $200,000 university grant, alongside Garry and Otago University Professor Harlene Hayne.
Gerrie started work this month and said the timing of the project's launch, on Bain's first full day of freedom, was coincidental.
Gerrie said Bain's case could be the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of miscarriages of justice in the New Zealand legal system.
Wrongful convictions were a "substantial concern" in New Zealand, he said. "They are substantial, in that they are likely."
Gerrie said Victoria's School of Psychology was a natural home for an innocence project as the leading cause of wrongful conviction was eyewitness misidentification. This was an area in which psychologists held expert knowledge, particularly around witness interviewing and memory recollection.
All cases referred to the project by lawyers or family would be screened and those taken on would be investigated free of charge.
Gerrie would not say what cases his team was eyeing up, but he did say project adviser Lynley Hood's pet project, the case of Christchurch Creche worker Peter Ellis about which she wrote an award-winning book, was too far advanced.
Other than Hood, the project's advisory board would include leading DNA expert Professor William Thompson and world authority on eyewitness accounts Professor Elizabeth Loftus, both from the University of California, Professor Jacqueline McMurthrie from the Washington University Law School, and various academics from Victoria and Otago universities who specialised in areas such as interviewing techniques for children and memory trace evidence.
Prominent lawyers Greg King and John Rowan, QC, would also support the project.
Gerrie said he hoped to tap the investigative expertise of New Zealand journalists. . –Dominion Post