Sam Hallam pictured last Wednesday being greeted by friends and family on his release from prison where he spent nearly eight years for a crime he did not commit
Published: 24 May, 2012
by TOM FOOT
Wrongfully convicted of murder, Sam Hallam is pictured as he comes home a free man to euphoric scenes played out on his estate in Hoxton last week.
But look beyond the foreground and there is a more familiar image.
As a young man captures the moment with his camera phone he also, inadvertently, chronicles his own whereabouts.
The rise of the camera phone has been notable not just as a footnote to the technological advances of the past decade, it has also been a key development in murder investigations.
“Cell site analysis” – the legal phrase for investigations based on phone signals – has allowed detectives to pinpoint a suspect’s location on the night in question.
The terrible murder of trainee chef Essayas Kassahun in Clerkenwell in 2004 in an affray involving up to 40 youths, came two years after a huge boom in camera phone technology swept the country.
The court heard that Sam had a “state of the art” mobile, which was sitting on the table as he gave his “no comment” interview to police.
Lady Justice Heather Hallett the appeal judge said in court that the original advice to give no comment may have cost him in terms of the crucial evidence sitting there on his phone.
Yet, astonishingly, his camera mobile was not – officially – checked. The Court of Appeal heard on Thursday that even a “cursory check” could have prevented Sam spending almost eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Paul May, who led the campaign for justice for Sam, lays the blame squarely at the door of the Metropolitan Police.
“As Lady Hallett said, the failure to analyse the phone is ridiculous. Do they not have thumbs? You press menu, go to pictures. It’s simple,” he says.
Reasons given for the failure to analyse the phone – that there was bad weather on the night – were “entirely bogus”.
“They [the Met] had a suspect who was uniquely saying he wasn’t there. How easy would it have been for the police to have blown that out of the water by saying ‘We’ve analysed your phone and you were there’?”
He added that in 2004, when Sam was accused of murder, mobile phones could accurately be targeted to roughly 100 metres. It is now 10 metres.
But fault does not entirely rest with the police, he says. Another, and perhaps more plausible possibility is that the legal team was too thinly funded to make these basic checks.
The image of lawyers swilling at a great trough of legal aid cash is – when it comes to criminal defence – far wide of the mark.
Law students are encouraged to opt for the more comfortable life of a career in commercial law because criminal law is relatively poorly paid. And recent cuts to legal aid funding have made the situation worse than ever.
Kim Evans, a former Met Police officer, switched careers to become a criminal defence solicitor and now helps run the campaigning organisation Justice Gap.
Ms Evans, who sat in on both days of the hearing last week, adds: “There is no funding for reading the unused material served by the prosecution on the defence. That is the stuff the police did not want to use but could help the defence. It can be thousands of pages. Unless you are a lawyer with a deep sense of justice, there is little motivation to plough through this material for no financial reward, and with many solicitors’ firms laying off staff, there are fewer and fewer people available to do the work.”
The trainee chef – who is believed to have been beaten to death with a baseball bat with a nail in it – has been almost written out of the story so far.
On Monday I had a message on my answer phone from a close friend of Essayas. It said: “We are all happy for Sam’s release. He was an innocent man. All I am saying is that we are still grieving. We deserve an apology. His brother is hurting – we are thinking about the person we lost. It is seven years. Where is the justice? Where is the help for the victim?”
Now just one man is in prison for the murder of Essayas following an attack that the court heard involved up to 40 youths.
And with the cuts to legal aid it is unlikely any true justice will ever prevail.