The saying goes: ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In New Zealand, and around the world, most crimes carry a presumption of innocence. Despite this, people constantly slip through the cracks of our justice system. David Bain and Teina Pora are two high-profile examples of those who have been convicted of murder, served large portions of their lives in prison (12 and 20 years respectively), and were then declared to be innocent. Around the world thousands of others have suffered similar ordeals – but thanks to 68 international ‘Innocence Projects’, including the Innocence Project New Zealand (IPNZ), many of those wrongfully imprisoned are slowly but surely being exonerated.
The Innocence Network is a global organisation that uses DNA testing (which was often unavailable during original trials) to prove the innocence of those that have been wrongfully imprisoned. Since its establishment in 1992, various Innocence Projects has successfully helped overturn more than 350 wrongful convictions. With many IPNZ staff working pro bono, they rely heavily on the goodwill of lawyers, law students, psychologists and other scientists who work tirelessly to free innocent people from prison. This is necessary work – the number of innocent people convicted globally is estimated to be as high as 10%. Just let that sink in. 1 in 10 prisoners could be innocent.
IPNZ is spearheaded by our very own Prof Mark Henaghan, our vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne, and Psychology Associate Prof Rachel Zajac, among others. The day-to-day operations of the project are facilitated by Dr Bridget Irvine. As they all attest, overturning a conviction is no easy feat. “Because the [justice] system doesn’t like to admit it is wrong”, says Mark Henaghan, “you have to do a hell of a lot of work… to show there is something the system has missed”. In New Zealand, convictions cannot be overturned unless fresh and credible evidence comes to light. This is why the Innocence Network relies heavily on DNA evidence, which can provide conclusive proof of a person’s innocence. Before the advent of DNA testing, factors such as incorrect eyewitness accounts, false confessions, and incorrect questioning techniques caused an alarming number of people to be locked away for crimes they did not commit.
There is arguably no better example of this than Teina Pora. While not related to DNA, Pora’s case demonstrates the break-down of the justice system that was so typical of the 80s and 90s. Pora’s Lawyer, Jonathan Krebs, originally got involved with the case because Pora’s confession “just looked so ridiculous”. Pora has a mental age of 8-12 years old, and suffers from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. When questioned by the police therefore, Pora had a desire to please and agree with them – and he eventually agreed to everything they told him. One vivid example of this was when Pora was asked “what colour was the car?”. He guessed four or five different colours before landing on the right one, and the police moved on to the next question.
Thankfully, Krebs notes that “police questioning techniques have improved considerably”, and the introduction of compulsory video-taping of interviews, coupled with better police training, has led to far fewer false confessions. Nevertheless, there is always more to be done. Krebs is currently taking a case to the Privy Council that began under the Innocence Project, but “ran out of steam”. He notes that “the [problem with] the Innocence Project is that it relies upon the goodwill of people – and there is a limited supply”.
Currently the Innocence Project is supported by a bunch of volunteers around Dunedin, most of whom are law students in their fourth or fifth year of study. Different students help the team each year, volunteering for around 3 hours per week. In the words of Bridget Irvine, “Law students—in their volunteer capacity—are the backbone of the project”. Helping out the Innocence Project is an excellent, hands-on way to give back to the community and to learn how the legal system works (or sometimes doesn’t). The Project is always looking for new volunteers who can bring energy and a fresh perspective to understanding claims of wrongful convictions. A basic understanding of criminal law (and the law of evidence) is helpful, and students who are completing complementary second degrees (e.g. psychology, biochemistry) also bring new ideas into the mix.
If you are interested in helping out the Innocence Project team, or just want to find out more, get in touch with Dr Bridget Irvine, Research Co-ordinator of the Innocence Project New Zealand. Bridget is happy to receive calls on 03 479 4002, or emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jasper Fawcett.