Seven years in prison because of unreliable evidence


In 2005 Sam Hallam was found guilty of the murder of Essayas Kassahun. In 2012 he was released. This case raises serious questions about the criminal justice system, in particular about when eye witness evidence should be allowed to go before a jury.

Hallam, who was only 17 when he was convicted, has always protested his innocence. The case rested on eye-witness identification, an area of evidence so notorious for its unreliability that judges are compelled to give a special direction to the jury; warning them that a seemingly certain witness can still be mistaken.

There is even provision for a judge to withdraw identification evidence from the jury if it is poor enough. If this had happened, Hallam would have to have been acquitted for there was no other evidence linking him to the crime.

Unreliable identification

The identification evidence itself was confused. One witness, Bilel Khelfa, had originally identified Hallam in his statement to the police, but at the trial he said that the person he saw was wearing a hood and he did not see his face. Another witness, Phoebe Henville, identified Hallam but at the trial was forced to admit that she was just looking for someone to blame on the spot.

The defence brought witnesses who testified that Hallam was elsewhere at the time of the crime, and even a prosecution witness agreed that he was not there.

Nonetheless, the jury found Hallam guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of 12 years. His defence team launched an appeal, which was heard two years later in 2007 but were unsuccessful. The appeal judge found that it was too difficult to get a good idea of the true reading of the witness statements from the trial transcript, and that there was therefore not enough to doubt the soundness of the conviction.

New evidence emerged

Hallam’s defence team did not give up. They spent the next year gathering new evidence, which they presented to the Criminal Cases Reveiw Commission in 2008. After reviewing it, the CCRC appointed an outside police force to re-investigate the case. They discovered several anomalies, such as a mobile phone matching the description of one allegedly stolen by the killer, which was found at another suspect’s address.

They also found a photograph taken by Hallam at a pub two miles away from the murder only an hour and a half previously. In light of this, and other evidence not put before the court, the CCRC recommended the case be referred to the Court of Appeal.

This process took years, during which time Hallam’s father committed suicide under the strain of the case. Eventually a hearing was scheduled for mid-May 2012 before three Lord Justices of Appeal.  In a dramatic move, the prosecution announced that they would not be making any submissions opposing the appeal. In view of this, Hallam was granted bail; a very unusual move in a murder case.

He was formally acquitted on Thursday 17th May and will now begin a fight to be compensated for the years he spent in prison as an innocent man.

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