Glyn Razzell - Helens Law From the Perspective of the Wrongly Convicted
Helen McCourt and I are from the same generation growing up in the 1970's. We both worked as clerks in financial services in our early twenties. By all accounts Helen was lovely. Had we known each other we would probably have been friends.
Helen was believed murdered in 1988 aged just 22. Unless you've actually been in their position it's hard to fully comprehend the pain and suffering her family must have gone through and no doubt continue to feel to this day. No punishment of the person responsible could be enough to make up for their loss.
The British justice system may be 'the best in the world' but most reasonable people wouldn't claim that it's infallible. Things can and do go wrong. This can lead to both guilty people being acquitted and innocent people being wrongly convicted. Estimates of the size of the problem vary. Some people might argue that any complex process that got things right 90% of the time was a credit to the professionals involved. With over 70,000 people in prison at any one time, that's still a lot of prisoners who don't deserve to be there.
With modern forensic science, there should be less scope to get things wrong. That's the theory but even experts can sometimes disagree about the way the science is interpreted. Rare successful appeals against conviction seem to suggest there are ongoing problems with the police failing to disclose evidence helpful to the defendant or appellant.
A murder trial would normally involve comprehensive forensic evidence. This might include a post-mortem to establish the cause of death, the weapon used together with any fingerprints or DNA recovered from it, where the weapon came from, any DNA, hairs, clothing fibres, foot or tyre prints, or soil samples recovered from the crime scene. The same from a body disposal site if different to the crime scene. Any CCTV or ANPR showing what happened and how people arrived at then left a scene. Electronic data from devices such as phones reveal GPS or mast locations together with calls or messages that can place people at a crime scene with pinpoint accuracy and often explain what their role was.
In murder cases with no body and no crime scene, most of the usual forensic evidence isn't available. It follows that murder convictions without a body will always be less 'safe' than those based on forensic science.
Before the 1960's the 'Corpus Delicti' rule meant that it was almost impossible to bring a murder charge without a body. The authorities would occasionally bend the rules such as in the notorious 1910 case of Dr Crippen. His conviction was secured on the basis of remains purported to have been found in his cellar that were claimed to be Cora, his wife. Modern DNA testing of the remains, now kept by Barts Health NHS Trust at Whitechapel Museum revealed they were from a man. The unfortunate Dr Crippen was hung. His conviction, now clearly unsafe, still stands which demonstrates how difficult it is to appeal a murder conviction in the British Courts, even posthumously.
The rule that prevented a murder charge from being made without a body was a good one. It meant that the police had to keep looking until they found the remains or the missing person. There would be fewer miscarriages of justice and no need for a 'Helen's Law'.
At the time of my trial 20 years ago the police used a College of Policing protocol to 'prove' that someone was dead and I assume it's still in force today. The thinking was that in the 21 st century it was impossible to live in Britain without being registered with the authorities. The police obtain statements from institutions such as the NHS, Inland Revenue, DVLA, Utility companies, other police forces, Passport Office, National Insurance records, and so on, 28 different sources in total. No record of contact means the missing person must be dead.
Flaws in this process 20 years ago included the fact that there was no check against people changing their name by deed poll (or just adopting a new identity informally) and no record of people leaving the country. Furthermore, the police cannot always be trusted to disclose what their checks reveal. In my case, we uncovered three examples where police encouraged false or misleading statements but we don't know how many other instances there were. When asked why evidence like this wasn't adduced at trial my barrister told me that the judge would not let him 'put the police on trial'.
That was all 20 years ago but can we be more confident about the checks today? Government databases are now mostly cross-referenced. Irregular migration has led to more stringent checks on identity and entitlement to access services such as NHS or accommodation or work. Anti-money-laundering laws mean banks and other financial institutions must 'know their customer'. Since Brexit proper records are kept on the identities of those entering or leaving the country.
The Metropolitan Police run a National Missing Persons Bureau. Published figures show that every year in Britain around 250,000 people are reported missing. Around 90% are found within a few days. A further 9% turn up within the year, leaving around 2,500 missing people unaccounted for every year. It's not a huge number, just 50 a week, but if they can't be found despite all the databases and record keeping of 21st-century life then what does that say about the reliance of the 'poof of death' protocol, even today.
Against this background, it is inevitable that there will be wrongly convicted prisoners sentenced to 'life' for a murder without a body that they did not commit. Every case is different but the absence of a body can make a murder conviction inherently unsafe.
In Britain, a mandatory life sentence for murder is split into two parts. There is the minimum term or tariff which must be spent in prison. This is set by the trial judge and the absence of a body in a murder case will normally be treated as an 'aggravating factor' leading to a longer term. Then there is the remainder of the prisoner's life which may be spent out of prison with restrictions but only if the parole board deem them safe to be released.
The parole board test for release is that a prisoner does not present a risk of serious harm. Any conditions applied must be necessary and proportionate to prevent a risk of serious harm. The parole board has a reputation for erring on the side of caution.
Statistically, life-sentenced prisoners who maintain their innocence tend to serve longer in prison before parole than those who admit guilt. This is not supposed to happen. In the 1990's there were several test cases in the House of Lords eg 'Zulfikar' or 'Oyston' where it was ruled that maintaining innocence should not be a barrier to release. In fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, maintained innocence has been shown to be a strong protective factor in reducing recidivism.
I am not aware of any recent academic study into the reasons why prisoners who maintain their innocence spend longer in prison. There is anecdotal evidence that both prison staff and parole board members look for contrition or remorse when assessing whether a prisoner is suitable for progression to lower security conditions or release. The understandable anger and resentment often harboured by the wrongly convicted rarely help their cause.
The current political trend to make the criminal justice system more 'victim-focused' may be making the plight of the wrongly convicted worse. A murder victim's family can claim that a prisoner who maintains their innocence is causing further serious emotional harm so is unsuitable for release. It would be understandably difficult for a victim's family, who had been through a trial supported by police family liaison officers with a strong motive to secure a conviction, to change their belief and accept that the person convicted of murdering their loved one may in fact be innocent. Professionals such as victim's representatives or probation officers appear to see their role as acting on behalf of victims and if victims want prisoners to stay in prison or be given tougher release conditions then that's what they'll try to achieve.
Helen's Law was first proposed almost 10 years ago when the political environment was more stable. Both the David Cameron government and Theresa May government rejected the concept with ministers citing undesirable consequences such as prisoners being incentivised to make up stories about pyres or burials at sea bringing further suffering to victim's families. The more populist governments of recent years had no such scruples and Helen's Law came into force in 2021.
Whilst Helen's Law doesn't expressly forbid a parole board from releasing a prisoner in a missing body case it strongly discourages them from doing so. So far, since coming into force more than two years ago, no prisoner in a missing body case has been released. I understand that my own case was the first Helen's Law case to be considered by the parole board for a second time. Caroline Corby, The Chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales decided that the parole hearing should be held in public and the hearing took place in August 2023.
Predictably, I was not released. My end-of-tariff parole hearing should have been held in 2019 but was adjourned and delayed for two years until Helen's Law came into effect, then the panel members were changed partway through without explanation. It doesn't inspire confidence in the parole board's independence from the executive.
I think all I can do is explain why my conviction remains unsafe, maintain my innocence, and keep the moral high ground. Four years ago I clearly met the parole board release test by demonstrating hundreds of releases from open prison on temporary licence without incident. Since then I've done hundreds more, all without incident. What further evidence could they possibly need?
By all accounts, Helen McCourt was a lovely girl. She doesn't deserve to have her good name associated with this awful legislation designed to keep the wrongly convicted in prison. What were her family thinking?
‘Helens Law’ means that criminals who do not disclose the location of the remains of their victims or the identity of victims of child abuse, cannot be granted parole for their offences. It is named Helen's Law after the murder of Helen McCourt by Ian Simms in 1988.
'Linda Must Still be Alive' In November 2003, Glyn Razzell was convicted of killing his wife, Linda. Yet her body was never found - and several witnesses said they had seen her after her disappearance. So was she murdered, or did she simply decide to leave? Bob Woffinden unravels the evidence.
Glyn Razzell may well have been the first person in this country to be convicted of murdering someone who isn't dead.
Read more: Bob Woffinden, Guardian, https://is.gd/bxxqKx