After someone has been convicted, to what extent is there a duty on the prosecution to disclose material to the defence? That, in a nutshell, was the question that Kevin Nunn posed, firstly to Suffolk Police and later the Courts, that was answered by the Supreme Court on 18th June 2014.
Kevin Nunn was convicted on 20th November 2006 of the murder of Dawn Walker in February of the year before and sentenced to the obligatory life imprisonment (with a tariff of 22 years). He appealed the conviction, but this was unsuccessful. He has always maintained his innocence.
A good overview of the facts that lead to the conviction and the proceedings since can be found in the judgment of the Divisional Court here. In essence, Mr Nunn requested the police to hand over to his lawyers certain material and exhibits to be tested or further tested, particularly in light of the developments in forensic evidence since the trial.
The police refused and Mr Nunn applied to the High Court to force them to do so, but they sided with the police on that point. Permission was later granted to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Judgment
It is a short and unanimous judgement that is worth reading in full.
They set out the question above and answer it by saying that there remains a duty on the prosecution post-conviction, but it is a lower one than during a criminal trial. In essence, if the police come in to possession of material (for example a confession by a third party) that casts doubt on the conviction then this is disclosable.
Other matters, such as the requests in this case, were not generally disclosable. Whilst this may seem harsh, the ‘safety valve’ identified was that the CCRC could investigate and order further testing and collecting of further evidence in suitable cases.
For that reason, the appeal was dismissed.
One of the oddities of the case could be thought to be this : the cost to the public of defending the Judicial Review in the High Court and the Supreme Court would have been monstrous. We haven’t got a figure, but it will be well over six figures. The cost of allowing the scientists instructed by Mr Nunn (he was willing to pay for it) was minimal. On that basis, what was the point in opposing it?
The Supreme Court points out that in a case of this nature there will often be huge amount of material and it is often costly to sift through it all. That is certainly a fair point, although if you are in prison, having been convicted of a crime that you didn’t do, you may not be too impressed by it.
Also, is it right to stand by the letter of the law, if that were the case? What is at issue here is whether an innocent person has been condemned to a life in prison, whilst a murderer has gone free. In those circumstances, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
Where is the harm in allowing the material to be tested? If you’re right, then fine – the testing will back you and no harm done. But if you’ve got it wrong, the truth will out at some point and you are going to look not just ridiculous, but also malicious.
That is a separate point and as the Supreme Court make clear, the police and CPS do sometimes do this in certain cases. One where, in their view, the results of the testing would be determinative of guilt is an example.
The key issue will be how effective and co-operative the CCRC are. One concern here is that they are hugely under-resourced with a large backlog of cases.
But if they do, this is not the end of the matter. This judgment makes them the arbiter of whether there should be further testing or investigation. Fine if they agree to what you ask for, less so if they refuse.
The remedy would then be a Judicial Review with a very high threshold (and great expense) which means, inevitably, that good cases will slip through the cracks.
Disclosure is a perennial problem. Non-disclosure of one sort or another is generally at the heart of every miscarriage of justice. It is clear that there are currently failings in the way that the disclosure system operates in most cases and that these will get worse as the cuts to defence, courts and CPS bite.
I have experience of cases that have collapsed after the start of the trial when material that has been described as non-disclosable has finally been teased out, showing that a defendant is innocent.
Those are clear cut cases. There are many others where disclosure would not be a knock out blow, but may well have made a difference to the verdict. The case of Mr Nunn is one of those. Whilst I can understand the Supreme Court judgment, it does leave me uneasy.