University of Bristol Innocence Project asks: Is William Beck a victim of mistaken eyewitness identification?
Press release issued: 19 August 2011
William Beck was 20 when he was arrested for an armed robbery of a post van in Livingston, Scotland on 16 December 1981. Nearly three decades later, after serving six years of imprisonment for a conviction based exclusively on eyewitness identification, he continues to maintain his innocence. The University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP) has taken on Mr Beck’s case and has today submitted a response on his behalf following two rejections by the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission — the independent public body set up to review alleged miscarriages of justice.
The University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP) has taken on Mr Beck’s case and has today submitted a response on his behalf following two rejections by the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission — the independent public body set up to review alleged miscarriages of justice.
Although Mr Beck claims that he was in Glasgow the entire day at the time of the robbery, some 40 miles away from where the crime occurred, he was convicted on the evidence of five eyewitnesses, only two of whom identified Mr Beck in an identity parade. The other three witnesses picked out a volunteer.
Eyewitness misidentification has been accepted worldwide as a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Around 75 per cent of post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States are attributed to eyewitness misidentification. In addition, a report by eyewitness identification expert Professor Tim Valentine highlighted various problems with the identification parade procedure and concluded that the evidence against Mr Beck had ‘low probative value’.
The UoBIP took on Mr Beck’s case earlier this year when the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission issued a provisional Statement of Reasons stating that they were not minded to refer his conviction to the High Court of Justiciary. Mr Beck’s case was assigned to postgraduate law students Mark Allum and Ryan Jendoubi at the University’s Law School, who produced the response to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission on behalf of Mr Beck.
Under the guidance of Dr Michael Naughton, founder of the UoBIP, the students had seven months to get to grips with the facts of the case and issue a response to the provisional decision of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. Their twenty-page response argues that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has applied an unduly high standard in rejecting Mr Beck’s case. They contend that when his conviction is assessed as a whole, it is not possible to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that a miscarriage of justice has not occurred.
Mark Allum said: “Mr Beck’s conviction was based primarily upon identification evidence part of which the trial judge referred to as unreliable and part of which he suggested the jury should treat with great care. Recently the courts have become increasingly reluctant to base convictions solely upon eyewitness testimony especially since studies have exposed the fallibility of such testimony. Were this case to come before the courts today it is highly likely that the trial judge would dismiss it.
Ryan Jendoubi said: “Mr Beck's case underlines important problems in the way the justice system currently approaches cases of alleged wrongful conviction.”
Dr Michael Naughton added: “Ironically, Mr Beck shares the same surname and was arrested on the same day and month as the notorious miscarriage of justice victim Adolf Beck (16 December) who was twice wrongly convicted on mistaken eyewitness identification evidence in 1896 and again in 1901. The case of Adolf Beck led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal and the introduction of compensation for victims of miscarriage of justice. Over a century later, it seems history may be repeating itself and eyewitness identification evidence is again in the dock.”