Whenever I see a convicted criminal on the telly protesting his innocence, the levels of scepticism rise within me to the point of misery. It’s a risky thing to admit, but when you see a mother mourning her ‘lovely son who wouldn’t hurt a fly ‘, only to see the photos from Facebook a couple of days later in which the son is posing with guns or knives, it is hard not to be sceptical. I don’t defend my response – I simply admit it.
In cases like this I am always reminded of two things: (a) Andy’s line in (utterly and incontrovertibly brilliant) The Shawshank Redemption – when asked what certain prisoners were ‘in’ for – that ‘everyone in here is innocent'; and (b) when doing some prison chaplaincy many years ago I sat in on a Lifers’ Board – when life sentences were reviewed – and was quite moved by one or two of the men whose pleas sounded reasonable and rational … until I was then appraised of some of the facts and my head overruled my fickle heart.
Only those in full possession of the facts can make an informed judgement about guilt and, therefore, whether a sentence is justified or not.
But the flip-side of this is the frustration felt when justice is clearly the casualty of wrong judgement. This is part of the problem with the Megrahi/Lockerbie case – it is (a) wrong to imprison someone on the grounds that it is better to have someone to blame rather than no one (simply satisfying the need for a scapegoat) and (b) injustice leaves the real culprits free to do more damage … and that should be really worrying. Justice matters – and injustice matters as much if not more.
So, today there will be great celebration at the pardon granted to Michael Shields in Liverpool. Michael was convicted of the attempted murder of a barman in Bulgaria after Liverpool had won the 2005 European Champions League final. He claimed to be innocent, but was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was eventually moved from Bulgaria to a Warrington (UK) young offenders institution to continue his sentence. Despite someone else admitting the offence and Michael demonstrating convincingly that he could not have done the damage, his plea met with scepticism and denial. The facts could not be allowed to intrude on a good closure and a ‘job well done’ – i.e. someone nicked.
I did not know whether or not Michael Shields was guilty of the offence. Like every other ordinary observer I didn’t see all the evidence and couldn’t make a judgement. His initial protestations evoked in me a sceptical response: ‘they all say that, don’t they?’ But, as the evidence began to be presented, it was evident to anyone with a pulse that he was innocent of the charge laid against him. My initial response was wrong and his family and friends deserve credit for not slackening their four-year campaign to get him released – with the full and vocal support of the Bishop of Liverpool.
The celebrations will go wider than the Shields family and, knowing the city and its character, there will be great celebrations that Michael is free at last. But the greatest celebration should be that justice has been done and an injustice undone. The man has lost four years of freedom, but not four years of unique though involuntary experience. It remains now for the Bulgarians to examine the reasons for having allowed this injustice in the first place.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)