Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Help for wrongly convicted

Scientist wants to beat system that can jail innocent people.

Anna Sandiford.  Photo / Supplied
Anna Sandiford. Photo / Supplied

A leading forensic scientist is launching a charity for people who have been wrongly convicted.

Dr Anna Sandiford, an expert defence adviser at the 2009 acquittal of murder accused David Bain, has held initial talks with well-placed supporters such as lawyers, legal academics and professional investigators.

Auckland-based Sandiford told the Herald on Sunday she plans to launch the organisation this year, fearing outdated legal processes and cuts in legal aid funding are leading to a rising number of wrongful imprisonments.

"There is a need for an organisation that meets what I see as a gap in the system," she said. "If you are convicted at your first trial it is incredibly difficult to get anything beyond that reassessed. After conviction you are in a legal minefield."

Sandiford said an inadequate police investigation, substandard forensic science and a poorly prepared defence were the main causes of wrongful imprisonment.

"If you have one or more of those elements present in any case you increase the chances of a miscarriage of justice," she said. "The first two of these are always present prior to the first trial and in a lot of cases these don't get examined closely enough." Sandiford moved to New Zealand from the UK in 2008 and heads a consultancy called The Forensic Group. She said legal aid cutbacks mean Crown prosecutors have far better funding than most defendants.

She believed the cuts also mean some overseas expert witnesses are reluctant to offer their services.

"An Australian expert recently told me he will never take on another case here because it can take several months to get paid. His fee was around $2000 and he was considering treating it as an unrecoverable debt. This is becoming a national and international embarrassment to New Zealand."

Sandiford insisted her charity group would not be a vehicle for criminals attempting to evade rightful justice.

Criminal Bar Association chairman Tony Bouchier welcomed Sandiford's plans.

"Other countries have Innocence Project groups for people who have been wrongly convicted and it is time we had something similar here," he said. "Cutbacks in legal aid mean poor people in particular are being denied access to an appropriate defence for financial reasons and that is wrong."

Associate law professor Bill Hodge of Auckland University cautioned Sandiford's group would be viewed with some suspicion. "However, if an organisation like this is necessary it is a pretty strong condemnation of our present legal aid system," he added.

Government stand on Bain payout a puzzle

Dr Anna Sandiford is baffled at the Government dragging its heels over David Bain's compensation application.

Justice Minister Judith Collins said this week a decision could be delayed because of legal action Bain was taking against her decisions.

Collins rejected retired Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie's recommendation for compensation as flawed with serious errors.

Sandiford gave expert evidence at Bain's retrial in 2009. She concluded he could not have made sock prints left at the scene . "The politicians wanted an independent person with no knowledge of the case to come in and look at it with fresh, unbiased eyes. Binnie did that, they didn't like it," she said. "Why even bother if you are not going to take on board what is said?"

Sandiford said she believed David Bain's father Robin, also found dead from gunshot wounds at the Dunedin house in 1995, was far more likely to have been the killer. "I didn't see any scientific evidence that suggested David Bain."

- Herald on Sunday

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