Justice can’t be done in secret. And here’s why

Justice can’t be done in secret. And here’s why

We will always try to twist the evidence to fit our theories. Especially when we are wrong

Daniel Finkelstein, The Times Online, July 9 2008

Have you ever heard of “wilding”? Can you remember when you heard of it? I want to refresh your memory.

This week in Times2, my colleague Camilla Cavendish has been telling some terrible stories of children taken from their parents without good reason and adopted against their will, never to be returned. And all in secret. Not a word to be published. I think that the story of wilding will help you to see why the secrecy is a scandal.

On April 19, 1989, a young woman jogging in Central Park, New York, was attacked. That understates it. She was brutally beaten and raped. Her terrible injuries left doctors convinced she would die. Eventually she pulled through, although without a memory of the attack.

The case of the Central Park Jogger became a symbol of a city out of control. The story became even bigger when the first arrests were made. New York police rounded up a gang of young African-Americans who quickly confessed. Apparently they liked to attack strangers, regarding their frenzied assaults as a form of entertainment. Wilding, they called it, and the word became famous.

Now I am going to tell you something you may not know. Certainly I didn’t until I stumbled across it a couple of days ago. About ten years after being sentenced for his part in the wilding, Kharey Wise met a man in prison, another New York rapist, called Matias Reyes. And the more Reyes got to think about it the sorrier he felt for his new friend. For Reyes knew something that the police and the courts did not. The wilding story was nonsense. The confessions were coerced, as the young men had claimed for years. How did he know it? Because he, Matias Reyes, had really raped and beaten the Central Park Jogger.

What follows is the shocking bit – shocking but instructive. The moment that Reyes confessed, it was clear that he was indeed guilty. His DNA was linked to the rape, and the chance that the link was mistaken was one in six billion. The wilding teenagers had left no DNA. And, when you came to look at it, their confessions didn’t really add up. They weren’t consistent with each other or with the facts. The District Attorney concluded that the convictions must be overturned and there can’t be much doubt that he was right.

Yet the prosecution lawyer in the original case refused to accept this. She was furious. She stridently opposed the finding of the DA. So did the New York Police Department. They convened a panel that concluded that the police had done nothing wrong and that, even if Reyes was guilty, he may not have acted alone. They concluded, lamely, that the teens must have started the assault with Reyes taking his opportunity later.

Even though the teens were eventually freed, this sort of behaviour is typical. In this country we should know this because we have had the case of Timothy Evans, whose wife and child were found dead at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, West London. Evans was hanged in 1950, found guilty of murdering the child, a crime he blamed on his fellow tenant John Christie.

Then in 1953, other bodies were found at Rillington Place – in the garden and sealed behind wallpaper. Christie was a mass murderer. The evidence that Evans had been executed in error was overwhelming, but the legal Establishment refused to yield to it. There was silence at first. Then there was a review that concluded, preposterously, that he murdered his wife but not the baby. This paved the way to a pardon 15 years after Evans’s death. His conviction, obviously wrongful, has never been overturned.

Why does this happen? Why do people refuse to accept what simply has to be true? Social psychologists use a term to describe this behaviour that you may have come across – it is called cognitive dissonance. This is the tension that arises when a person holds two attitudes that are psychologically inconsistent. And it is tension that is hard to live with, tension that simply has to be resolved.

So what do you do? A brilliant new book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson – Mistakes Were Made, but not by Me – explains. You believe that you are a good person, say, yet you know you have done a bad thing. There is dissonance. You resolve it by deciding that the bad thing was not that bad. The worse your behaviour, the harder you will try to twist it around in your head until you can reconcile it with your view of yourself.

It is commonly thought that we have theories and that they are tested by the facts. The opposite is true. We have theories and then we strive mightily to fit the facts into them, ignoring those that don’t quite work or reinterpreting them if we have to. The more we have at stake emotionally, the more pressing this task becomes.

Cognitive disssonance explains a great deal. Take Gordon Brown. Some people believe that all the strife, all the difficulties he is encountering may lead him to give up. Cognitive dissonance suggests that the more trouble he is in, the more difficult things get, the harder he will work to convince himself that it is all worthwhile and that he is indispensable. His troubles make him less likely to resign, not more.

Now look at the Central Park Jogger case. People suffered because mistakes were made. The police and the prosecution, believing themselves to be good people doing good work, could not reconcile this suffering with their view of themselves. So they insisted, they had to insist, that the teenagers were guilty. The facts challenged their theory of themselves, so the facts had to be reinterpreted. The Evans case is similar. The legal Establishment regarded itself as dispensing justice and the death of an innocent man didn’t fit. It became essential that he not be innocent, whatever the evidence.

When groups – police, medics, politicians, social workers, the Family Court apparatus – get together, convinced of their own righteousness, the facts (like Timothy Evans) can go hang. They are certain that they are right, certain they are just and often, you know, they really are. But when they are not, they will never ever admit it, digging themselves in more and more deeply.

A local authority that has taken your children away can never admit it did so wrongly. And every fact that shows that it did needs to be twisted around until it shows that it didn’t. That is what is happening all the time, behind the close doors of our Family Courts, beyond scrutiny.

There’s only one way out. That is to allow others, those without a stake in the righteousness of anyone, to shine a light on proceedings. Not to do so is inexcusable. It is an affront to justice and the rule of law.

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