University of Bristol Innocence Project response to Simon Hall judgment by the Court of Appeal
Press release issued: 21 January 2011
Following a three-day appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice between 7-9th December 2010, the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) handed down its judgment last week dismissing the appeal of Simon Hall and upholding his conviction for the murder of 79-year-old Joan Albert.
The University of Bristol Innocence Project has worked on Simon Hall’s case since 2006 and contributed significantly to the referral of his case back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The University of Bristol Innocence Project first went public with their thoughts on the inherent unreliability of the fibre evidence in the last ever BBC Rough Justice documentary aired in April 2007 and made two specific submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on the problem with the fibre evidence during its review.
Simon Hall’s appealcentred on the reliability of the fibres evidence claimed to link him to the murder. Specifically, new defence expert Tiernan Coyle gave evidence that nylon black flock fibres and polyester fibres found in addresses and vehicles relating to Simon Hall, claimed by prosecution expert at trial, Judith Cunnison, to be ‘indistinguishable’ from those found at the scene of crime and the deceased’s body could be discriminated utilising the more sensitive First Derivative technique.
In addition, Coyle also found that the polyester fibres claimed at trial by Cunnison to be ‘green’ are, in fact, carbon black in colour and of much less evidential value than was posited.
Dismissing Simon Hall’s appeal, Lord Justice Pitchford held that: "While we have concluded that the fibre evidence given at trial was incomplete in its description and analysis of the available source material, and in its identification of green polyester fibres, wrong, we are quite satisfied that the scientific support for the assertion that the appellant was the source of the fibres found at the crime scene is compelling. We have no reason to doubt the safety of the jury's verdict and the appeal is dismissed."
Dr Michael Naughton and Gabe Tan of the University of Bristol Innocence Project said: “For the following reasons we find the decision to uphold Simon Hall’s conviction untenable.
“First, in summing up Cunnison’s evidence at trial, Justice Rafferty noted that ‘tests on the flock, plus the two different polyester fibres…gave extremely strong, robust, scientific evidence that they have originated from a similar source’. However, Coyle proved that Cunnison was wrong in her identification of the colour of the polyester fibres. In fact, what Cunnison described as ‘green’ polyester fibres are carbon black and relatively commonplace, which undermines the probative value of Cunnison’s testimony at trial that underpinned Simon Hall’s conviction. This was acknowledged and accepted by the new prosecution expert, Ray Palmer, during the appeal.
“Second, the only reason Simon Hall was convicted was the claimed strength of the fibre evidence linking him to the murder. Indeed, although there was a wealth of other evidence at the crime scene that was subjected to forensic analysis, including hair and fingerprints, none of it related to Simon Hall. In addition, stomach content analysis and witness accounts from Joan Albert’s neighbours pointed to a much earlier time of death, a time at which concrete alibi evidence proves Simon Hall could not have committed the crime.
“Third, the defence at trial did not seek the opinion of a specialist fibre expert. Instead, a general forensic scientist was consulted who was unable to identify or challenge Cunnison’s errors and, hence, was not called to counter Cunnison’s evidence during the trial. As such, the evidence heard by the jury was misleading and one-sided, to say the least. Whilst we acknowledge that the overriding role of the Court of Appeal is to decide whether or not the conviction is unsafe and not to second guess how the jury would have approached the fresh evidence, it remains highly questionable whether the jury would have reached the same conclusion had they known that the fibres were in fact not indistinguishable as claimed by Cunnison, particularly in light of all of the other evidence that supports Simon Hall’s claim of innocence.
“For these reasons, we fail to understand why the Court of Appeal did not at least order a re-trial and let a jury decide whether Simon Hall is guilty or not with a more complete grasp of the strengths and the weaknesses of the fibre evidence.
“The University of Bristol Innocence Project is critical of the way in which the Criminal Cases Review Commission had handled its review of Simon Hall’s case.
"Private Eye in November 2009, made public that other evidence which could positively prove Simon Hall’s innocence was uncovered by the University of Bristol Innocence Project investigation. This relates to another burglary which occurred on the night of Joan Albert’s murder, just ten minutes away from where she lived.
"Crucially, students uncovered a statement by a witness, who did not give evidence at trial, who identified the murder weapon as similar, if not identical, to the one that had gone missing from the burgled house: it had the same colour handle, length of blade and rivets on the knife handle. Simon Hall, who has evidence that he was out all night with his friends on the night/morning of Joan Albert’s murder could not have committed the burglary and obtain the knife which could have been used to kill her.
"In addition, the schedule of unused material made reference to DNA profile(s) belonging to ‘more than one person’ that were found on the handle of the knife. This DNA evidence has never been disclosed, despite requests from Simon Hall’s original defence solicitor. It is our contention that if it incriminated Simon Hall the DNA profile(s) would have been disclosed and used at trial by the prosecution.
"However, within weeks of the University of Bristol Innocence Project highlighting the existence of this evidence, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that it was referring his case back to the Court of Appeal on grounds of the possible unreliability of the fibre evidence.
"But, the Criminal Cases Review Commission did not fully investigate the possible evidential value of the DNA profile(s) and the witness who identified the murder weapon prior to referring Mr Hall’s case.
"This undoubtedly diminished the possible impact that the evidence could have had on the appeal had it been fully explored. As such, although the evidence of the knife and burglary was included as a supplementary ground of appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, it is perhaps not surprising that it did not feature at all in Simon Hall’s appeal.
"The failure to fully investigate the DNA profile(s) and the identification of the murder weapon as stolen from the other burglary highlights the extent to which the criminal justice system is not concerned with innocence or guilt.
"The Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal generally only consider evidence that was not available or adduced at the time of the trial or in previous appeals. Under the existing system the evidence relating to the other burglary will not be able to be used in any subsequent applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission or feature in any future appeals.
"Until such time as the criminal justice system takes claims of innocence seriously and seeks the truth of whether alleged victims of wrongful convictions are innocent or not, it seems that the door is closed on the evidence which could exonerate Simon Hall entirely and potentially even lead to the conviction of the real perpetrator(s) of Joan Albert’s murder."
The University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP), the first innocence project in the UK, is an extra-curricular pro bono legal clinic which teaches law through working on real cases of alleged wrongful convictions. Established in January 2005 by Dr Michael Naughton, the UoBIP undertakes thorough and objective investigations into cases of prisoners maintaining innocence who have exhausted the normal appeals process and legal aid with the aim of ascertaining the validity of their claims of innocence. Intensely supervised by academic staff and assisted, where appropriate, by forensic scientists and criminal appeal lawyers, the UoBIP assists those who are found to be potentially innocent by making applications and submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to support a referral of the case back to the Court of Appeal. The UoBIP is also the founding member of the Innocence Network UK (INUK) which has actively supported the establishment of 30 innocence projects based in universities across England, Scotland and Wales.
Dr Michael Naughton is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law and School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol. He has specialised in the area of wrongful convictions for over a decade and has written extensively on the subject. He is the Founder and Director of the University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP), through which he directs student investigations into real cases of alleged wrongful convictions. He is also the Founder and Director of the Innocence Network UK (INUK) which he established in September 2004 to facilitate casework, research and communications in the area of wrongful convictions.
Ms Gabe Tan is a Research Assistant at the School of Law, University of Bristol. She is the Assistant Director of the University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP) and the Innocence Network UK (INUK). She is one of the founding members of the UoBIP and has led the investigation of Simon Hall’s case since 2006. She has made various submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on the unreliability of the fibres evidence and other evidential aspects of Mr Hall’s conviction which contributed significantly to the referral of his case back to the Court of Appeal.