BOB WOFFINDEN published Miscarriages of Justice (Hodder & Stoughton) in 1987. He has been writing about wrongful convictions ever since.
He was educated in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and at Sheffield University. His first job in journalism was as associate editor of New Musical Express. He subsequently wrote for the BBC arts magazine, The Listener, before joining Yorkshire TV as a documentaries producer, working on legal and environmental projects.
His films included Poisoned Lives, an analysis of the so-called “Spanish cooking-oil disaster” in Madrid and surrounding towns in 1981. In fact, the disaster was caused not by cooking oils, but by pesticides – which led to a long-term cover-up by the pharmaceutical industry. He also made Toxic Border, about the exploitation of employees (usually women) by multi-national companies, who had set up manufacturing plants (maquiladoras) on the border in Mexico in order to evade the trade union and environmental laws that applied in the United States and other developed countries.
He also made a documentary for Channel 4’s True Stories about the case of James Hanratty, which had been the great cause célèbre of the 1960s. (The case was alluded to in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, which won the Olivier for best new play 2016.)
The A6 murder was committed outside Bedford. Even though there was ample evidence that at the time Hanratty was in Rhyl, north Wales, he was executed. In the wake of the documentary, Bob published Hanratty – The Final Verdict (Macmillan). The case remains unresolved. A new edition of the book is being planned.
In 1995, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, personally intervened to prevent Bob from visiting a prisoner who was asserting his innocence. As a result, the Simms and O’Brien case came into being. The progress of the case through the courts was, inevitably, ponderous. Bob naturally assumed that, after the change of government in 1997, the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, would discontinue the action. Instead, however, Straw insisted that it go ahead – which provided an early warning of what the new Labour administration’s attitude towards justice matters would be.
In 2000, at the House of Lords, the Home Secretary lost the case; Bob succeeded in establishing the right of prisoners claiming innocence to receive visits from journalists.
In the years since, however, successive governments have diluted this hard-won right.
Bob also brought to public attention the case of Philip English. In a joint enterprise case English was convicted of the murder of a police officer in Gateshead – despite the facts that he was unable to see the incident from where he was; that he was already under arrest at the time; and that there was no suggestion that he had encouraged or incited the tragic events.
Again, the case went to the House of Lords and, again, the outcome was positive. The conviction was quashed. English became the first person to be released from custody as a result of a decision in the House of Lords.
At the time, this was good news but, again, in subsequent years the government allowed this judgment to be watered down. Finally, in February 2016, the Supreme Court found that the Crown Prosecution Service had been wrongly applying the law on joint enterprise for all of its existence.
With his colleague Richard Webster, Bob also achieved justice for Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie, two nursery nurses from Newcastle who were prosecuted for offences allegedly committed against the children in the nursery. The case against them collapsed when it was shown that the offences had never happened. Reed and Lillie were acquitted.
However, a subsequent social services report sought to argue that, notwithstanding the outcome of the court case, Reed and Lillie had been guilty. Accordingly, they now needed to establish their innocence all over again.
Richard and Bob ensured that they had their day in court. More than a day, actually. They sued the authors of the social services report for defamation and, after a libel trial lasting six months, they won their case and were awarded the maximum possible damages.