Pardoned - By Alex Willmott, Chief Features Writer
On 26 April 1999, TV favourite Jill Dando was fatally shot outside her Fulham home in London. I was 15 years, and I remember feeling a sense of shock, shared by anyone who watched UK television at the time. A little over a year later, local man Barry George was arrested and charged with the murder. A murder he would be found guilty of and subsequently handed a life sentence for. Eight years into the sentence, the Old Bailey would clear Barry of the horrific crime.
I caught up with Barry’s sister Michelle Diskin Bates, who recalled her experience for Sorted magazine.
Michelle, what were your initial feelings and how on earth did you process it all?
My world went into a tailspin in May of 2000, when my brother was arrested for one of the highest-profile crimes in Britain in recent years, the murder of Jill Dando, much-loved BBC presenter. My mum didn’t tell me because she thought it would all blow over and I wouldn’t need to be bothered with it; after all, it was a mistake. So, I heard it on the radio as I was getting ready to go to a ladies’ Bible study, and my life as I knew it fell apart. Nothing … could have prepared me for such a trauma. My nice peaceful life was replaced by a nightmare.
At each stage of the legal process we expected the judges to say there was no case to answer, though Michael Mansfield had said it would take a brave judge indeed to throw this case out. The profile of the victim meant they would probably go all the way. Then, on Monday 2 July, Barry was inexplicably found guilty and life took another downward spiral.
What was the first year like with your brother in prison, and did you have any hope that the legal system would rectify the situation? How did you try to support him from the outside?
I was totally overwhelmed and had no idea how to go forward; we’d been certain he would not be, could not be, convicted. There was nothing linking him to the crime. Our whole family, those in the UK and my husband and children in Cork, Ireland were dazed. How could we fight the might of the whole British justice system? We were just little people, we couldn’t fight a colossus. Then a feeling rose up from inside me… we couldn’t do this but God could.
It was Paddy Hill, one of the so-called Birmingham Six, who started us on our way to campaigning for Barry’s freedom. He had set up an organisation, MOJO, to help the wrongly convicted after his own exoneration and release from prison. Without their help I could never have navigated the maze that is our appeals system.
Eight years is a very long time. How did these years affect Barry, yourself and your family?
That first year was fraught with emotions as we supported Barry through one failed appeal, and when the House of Lords also rejected his appeal, refusing him the right to mount any further appeals. It was MOJO who wrote the submission for me, and together we took it to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
They knew this was the only route open to Barry if he lost those appeals. The difficulty was that Barry told me not to work with MOJO, he didn’t understand that other wrongly convicted people would give their eye teeth to have MOJO helping them. I decided to go against his wishes and I have never regretted that decision. The CCRC took up his case, but it was to be five more years before we heard any positive news from them.
Mum visited Barry as often as she could, often weekly. I was living in Cork and it wasn’t so easy for me. I would have to leave my three children in order to visit, and that was agonising, more so when Barry would say we weren’t doing what we should be doing. The cost of airfares and the heartache of leaving my home made this a very difficult time. Obviously, Barry had no concept of what life was like for us on the outside, but I’m only human and my patience was thin at times. If I could have split myself in two I could have lived in both of my lives, simultaneously, that was how it felt.
What were your emotions when you heard the sentence had been overturned?
This double life continued until 2007, when we received the news that Barry was to get a new appeal. The CCRC were sending his case back because the main plank of the prosecution’s case, a single particle of firearms discharge residue, was neutral. It could not show he was guilty, neither could it show he was innocent.
We were approaching resolution at last. Then disaster struck. My husband of 25 years died, after a short illness. We were devastated. This was totally unexpected. … I considered stepping aside from helping Barry to be with my children in their grief.
“No, Mum, we have each other,” my youngest daughter insisted. “Barry only has you. You must continue.”
Barry won this appeal and was remanded for retrial. On 2 August 2008 Barry was, unanimously, found not guilty. Many would think that was the end of the story, but it was only the beginning of a new level of legal battles for justice, and persecution by the media. Barry is still fighting for justice; he has been told he will never receive compensation for his years as a wrongly convicted man. Basically, he is not innocent enough; he didn’t prove his innocence beyond reasonable doubt.
Tell us about the organisations that you work for now and why.
I have kept up my contact and friendships with MOJO, and am a supporter of their campaigns as they fight injustice for the wrongfully convicted. They, and others, are mounting campaigns and taking judicial reviews to have this ‘not innocent enough’ finding overturned because it undermines the presumption of innocence, a core legal precept.
Many others have been handed this decision since Barry’s case, but there is no legal avenue to prove one’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt, no court one can apply to with one’s evidence. Not guilty means not guilty, it doesn’t mean almost.
Recently I was honoured to be asked if I would become a patron for United Against Injustice (UAI). This organisation does not take on individuals’ cases, instead they run workshop to inform families and would-be campaigners how best to tackle a wrongful conviction. I have been a speaker at many conferences for both UAI and MOJO, also for others, including universities and women’s groups. This is a responsibility I take seriously.
It is my heartfelt belief that there is no fence to sit on when it comes to injustice. One either stands against injustice or one colludes with it. Justice is never served by the conviction of the innocent.