Presenting your case
A guide for people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, and their families and other supporters
Many people know every detail of the case they are supporting, but when they try to explain it to other people, they become lost in detail. It’s very easy to forget that anyone new to your case doesn’t know anything about it – she or he may not even know anything about the criminal justice process. Things that may seem obvious to you can be completely puzzling to anyone else.
It is actually quite difficult to write about even the simplest case in a way that will enable other people to understand it. This is a skill which people like journalists and lawyers have had to learn. You may not agree with what they have said, but look at how they have got the information across: copy them, but put in the facts as you see them.
You might want to use the news reports as a starting point, because the reporters are good at picking out what will grab readers’ attention and including the basic facts (even if they do miss out a lot of what you think is important).
You might also want to use the summaries of the case which will be in documents such as the summing up, advice on appeal, etc. You may not agree with all that is written in them, but remember lawyers are trained to summarise cases and present briefly all the facts that people need to know.
A] Before you start writing, think about:
1 Your medium
The same principles apply to whatever medium you want to use, but you need to know how much space, how many words or how much time you have available.
Stick to one or two sides of A4 paper, to keep the leaflet cheap and easy to handle.
Under 1000 words.
Not solid words: picture, graphic, headings to break up the text and make the leaflet attractive and readable.
1.2 Press release
One side of A4.
Include quotes that editors might like to use.
Include enough info so that a short article could be written using just your press release. But try to include hints that will entice reporters to contact you and ask for more.
Have a good, high resolution picture available, on a web site if possible.
1.3 Web page
Web space is cheap and you can put as much as you like on a web site. The problem is to get people to read it.
WordPress provide free basic websites.
Many people use Facebook pages. We don’t recommend this for articles.
The web site should include everything that anyone might ever be interested in – it is a reference point, where anyone who wants to know about the case can find anything she or he might need. Whole documents like judges’ summings up can be put on. But what matters most is the
Home page. This should have
- a very brief and basic account,
- a strap (see below),
- the basic facts (see below),
- a picture if possible,
- a link to click on saying “read more” now that you have grabbed readers’ attention,
- and a clear menu so that visitors can find their way to what they want easily.
1.4 Public speaking
This topic merits a whole instruction manual of its own.
Think who will be in your audience.
Practice speaking it out loud to get presentation and timing right.
Try not to read it all – this can make it dull.
Have a prompt list or prompt cards with notes to remind you about what you want to say.
Relying on your speech to come out naturally without practice or notes is risky – very few people can pull that off.
2 Your readers
Why are you writing an account of your case (what do you want to achieve)?
Who do you want to read it?
What do you expect your readers to do next?
Decide on your target readership. You may be writing for any of these groups, or (more probably) for all of them. Your account must include what they need to know, and what you want them to know.
If you are writing your account for everyone to read, then you should still check the list below to make sure all these readers can find what they’re interested in, in your account.
2.1 The general public
2.2 Media: newspaper reporters, journalists, TV and radio researchers
Some of these people are good, and can be your best friends. But many are lazy and don’t want to believe you, so make you case watertight if you can, and make it obvious (see strap, below). Once you get them interested, journalists will want to find out everything, so try to make this easy for them.
Why do you want the media to be interested?
- To make the general public aware.
- In case there are witnesses who might contact you with useful information.
- So that journalists, TV researchers etc. will find out evidence that will be useful in an appeal.
- So that information which has been hidden comes into the public domain. Perhaps important evidence was available at the trial, but your lawyers failed to use it. As a result it may be inadmissible at your appeal. But if it’s been plastered over the newspapers, then lawyers and judges may find it hard to ignore.
Think of what you are writing as a resource and reference point for journalists and researchers.
Students of law, journalism and forensic science are often interested in miscarriages of justice. Some are involved in Innocence Projects, which could provide you with practical help. Can you give them some idea of what they might do to help – why they should pick up on your case?
The few good appeal lawyers are very busy people (for obvious reasons). If you want to attract their interest, make it easy for them, so that they will have a clear guide and the basic facts at their fingertips.
Of course judges are never going to admit to reading your publicity material. But they might. If you were an appeal judge, wouldn’t you want to check out on the internet the case you were about to hear? So make sure the information is available there that might not be admissible at an appeal, but which you want them to be aware of (see 2.2, last point, above).
B] What should be in your account – in this order:
(of course, you may need to break the following rules – they are recommendations rather than rules)
- Attention-grabbing headline if you can think of one.
“Miss Cat was convicted of murdering Mr Starling on 14 February. She went on holiday to the Seychelles on 15 February. His body was found on 17 February. Now witnesses have come forward who saw Mr Starling alive on 16 February, when Miss Cat was thousands of miles away…”
Unfortunately few cases are as clear cut as this, but you will get the idea: the strong, interesting point that will grab the attention of your readers: why they should read more… (we used to call this a strap on which to hang the rest of the story).
Picture: put a picture of the wrongly convicted person here if you can.
Basic facts – these are of key importance
- Name and age of person convicted
- What the crime was, i.e. what the wrongful conviction is for
- Name of victim (if there was a victim)
- Place where it happened (including town/city, county/part of country)
- Date when crime happened
- Date of arrest
- Date of trial, and name of court
- date of appeal (if heard)
What the jury heard, and why they made their decision
You must give all the points of the prosecution case. There’s no point in hiding anything. You can say why they are wrong or misleading later on. Your readers will want to know why the jury reached the conclusion they did. After all, the jury sat through the trial, heard all the evidence, and had the benefit of hearing witnesses speak and could decide for themselves whether they were truthful.
Explain how the prosecution case held together – what their story was – and why it seemed convincing to the jury.
Your next task is to convince your readers that the jury was mistaken.
Defence case as presented in court
The defence answers to all the prosecution points.
- What the jury did not hear
- Evidence not used by your defence
Evidence that was available, that you think should have been used at the trial. Why wasn’t it used?
Point by point, explain why unused evidence is important, and how it would have made a difference if the jury had heard it.
- Fresh evidence
Evidence that’s come to light since the trial – like Miss Cat’s new witness.
This might also be evidence that the police did not disclose before the trial.
It might include evidence that you think probably exists, but you haven’t yet got hold off – ‘we are sure there are other suspects’ – ‘Did the meter reader who visited Mr Starling’s house on the day after he is supposed to have been killed see him alive?’
- What you think really happened (if you know)
You might have had nothing to do with the crime and so you know nothing about it. But if you have suspicions, you might want to voice them: “Mr Starling was known to be a drug dealer, and is likely to have been murdered in the course of a robbery by one of his customers…
What is happening now
What stage has the case reached?
Is there an appeal pending?
Has an application been made to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and/or the European Court of Human Rights? etc.
What you want to happen next
appeals for witnesses
campaign activity: meetings, vigils, tee shirts for sale, etc.
What would you like the reader to do? write to the person in prison / sign a petition / attend a meeting, etc.
Whatever you can manage: email is essential, phone number and address if you are prepared to give them out.
Like all our advice pages, the advice in this one is likely to be incomplete, and suggestions for additions and improvements are very welcome. The advice on this page is not legal or other professional advice, but just a guide which we hope is helpful.
C] Now go back over what you have written, and reduce it to the minimum necessary to fit in the space available.
If you have a web site, then put a simple account on the home page, and add links to any extra material that supports your case, which will be on other pages.