White & Case’s link with Innocence Network UK has given the body much-needed funds and expertise
In March 2012 convicted killer Gary Critchley was released from prison after more than three decades of maintaining his innocence. He had lost multiple appeals and the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an independent public body established after the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six, had refused to reopen his case.
Shortly before his release, the complicated case landed in the hands of White & Case, the UK’s first corporate firm to join Innocence Network UK (INUK), gaining the support of around 20 lawyers to take part in an impartial investigation.
INUK was born following the development of the UK’s first Innocence Project at the University of Bristol. In the past Innocence Project cases were only associated with the US, particularly after the programme was thrown into the media arena due to the blockbuster film Conviction, which depicts the case of Kenneth Water, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
White & Case chose to join forces with the University of Bristol Innocence Project (UoBIP) after partner and head of the firm’s commercial litigation practice John Reynolds read about the work of INUK.
“Having read an article a while ago about UoBIP founder Michael Naughton setting up INUK, it struck me that this is an area
that would interest and engage our lawyers, using and developing their legal skills while contributing to a valuable cause,” Reynolds relates. “The enthusiasm with which this has been taken up by our lawyers has proved me right.”
Through Naughton’s vision, the UK arm of the project has offered salvation to those who have fallen victim to miscarriages of justice, giving hope to those who are innocent and have become lost within the UK’s judicial system.
The team at White & Case were attracted to the Critchley case, the firm’s first Innocence Project case, due to its high-profile nature at the time.
“When the case was presented to us by INUK we found the facts to be very interesting and felt it would be a perfect first case to take on,” enthuses associate David Milton, who is one of the joint leaders of the case along with associate Rory Hishon. “Our task is to carry out an independent investigation to find if he’s innocent or guilty.”
In June 1980 Critchley was found lying unconscious three storeys below a London squat he had been residing in. He had suffered a broken back and injuries to his head, ankle and wrist. He was wearing a Timberland boot on one foot and an undone trainer, two sizes too small, on the other.
The body of Edward McNeill was later found inside the squat and a bloody imprint in the room matched the trainer on Critchley’s foot. He was convicted for murder.
A key issue of Critchley’s case for the White & Case team is that the accused suffered severe amnesia from the head injuries following his fall. However, the team is hoping that the DNA testing will help to overcome this hurdle.
Strands to deliver
“One of the few advantages of having a case that dates back 30 years is that we know DNA testing wasn’t used to prosecute Gary,” says Hishon. “Gary was convicted on the basis of blood group analysis only, but now we can try to obtain the forensic items and apply DNA testing for the first time.”
DNA profiling is a method that did not enter the legal system until 1987. It is therefore crucial for the lawyers backing Critchley’s cause to obtain forensic samples from the 1980 murder scene.
“The main problem we face is getting involved with a case more than 30 years after the incident,” concedes Milton. “The time lapse means it’s very difficult to get the forensic samples and contact the relevant witnesses.”
“What strikes us about the case is that the evidence used against Gary was only circumstantial,” explains Hishon. “The victim was hit with a claw hammer about 27 times on the head. It was a brutal scene, with the victim’s blood all over the walls of the room – there was so much blood in the room that hardly any was left in the victim’s body.
“However, when Gary was found he had no traces of the victim’s blood on him at all. When he was tried, Gary’s defence lawyers argued that it was inconceivable the victim could be murdered in such a way that Gary wouldn’t get blood on his clothes – but the prosecution claimed it had washed away in the rain.”
Partners, associates and a handful of trainee solicitors are working up to 30 hours a week on the case alongside their non-pro bono work.
“I think a project like this ties in well with the team here as we work specifically in dispute resolution, so we’re used to working with document-heavy type work and ploughing through piles of documentation quickly and spotting key issues,” says Milton.
If the team finds Critchley to be innocent following its impartial investigation, White & Case will make an application to the CCRC. However, the timeline of this is indefinite.
“The case moves as quickly as we can move it, but we find a lot of the time we’re pushing at closed doors,” says Hishon.
The new partnership with a large corporate law firm has given INUK the necessary cash injection and significant expertise to assist more cases of possible wrongful conviction that land daily on the desks of UoBIP.
Following the conclusion of the case, White & Case hopes to continue its work with INUK and take on other potential cases of miscarriages of justice.