A collaboration between academics, students, lawyers and the Bridge of Hope Foundation is harnessing the power of the innocence movement to investigate claims of wrongful conviction in Australia.
The Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative at RMIT began in July 2014 following the success of the US-born innocence movement. It provides pro bono assistance to applicants who claim they are factually innocent of a criminal offence for which they were convicted.
The innocence movement gained legs in the late 1980s when the advent of DNA evidence created greater interest in innocence initiatives. At the same time, there was a growing global culture around human rights and interest in justice.
The latest Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative case uncovered the apparent failure of police to disclose hundreds of intercepted telephone conversations during the murder trial of Keli Lane.
The Initiative’s request for access to this information is currently under review.
Lane was convicted of murdering her new born baby Tegan in 2011 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. She is eligible for parole in 2023.
According to The Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, Lane’s conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, with no evidence of a body, death, cause of death or motive, and no witnesses, confession or forensic evidence linking Lane with a homicide.
Lane’s landline and mobile phones were monitored several times during lengthy police investigations that ran for 11 years.
Associate Dean of Criminology and Justice Studies, Dr Michele Ruyters, said it was vital to obtain access to the recordings as they may have contained information that exonerated Lane.
“There has been significant interest in the case with good reason,” she said.
“With the ABC running a three-part television series about our investigation, we hope to shine a light on the potential injustice that has occurred here,” she said.
The Innocence Initiative also received expert input from legal counsel and Victorian Barrister Julie Buxton.
Before signing the Bar Roll in October 2017, Buxton worked as Impact Producer on the Prison Songs outreach campaign – a program focused on Indigenous incarceration. Prior to that, Buxton was a human rights adviser to Andrew Jackomos, the then Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.
With more than 50 per cent of children incarcerated in Australia coming from an Indigenous background, the focus of Buxton’s work had primarily focused on the prosecution and imprisonment of Indigenous children.
“Australia’s current age of criminal responsibility is just ten years old…this means that Australia is criminalising the behaviour of children, albeit in very small numbers, that anywhere else in the world would be considered ‘innocent’,” Buxton said.
She referenced both the growing global culture of human rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child as being catalysts for the increasing public interest in justice.
Buxton’s social justice focus is shared by the patrons of the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative: former High Court justice Michael Kirby and former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs.
The Initiative is also backed by a high-powered list of ambassadors and leading Victorian criminal justice professionals.
Ruyters said the experience that RMIT students, staff and industry partners had as a result of participating in the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative was unparalleled.
“Our initiative delivers life-changing experiences – for those we seek to help and for our students and other team members who are involved in fighting these injustices,” she said.
“Under the supervision and training of real lawyers, field experts and staff, our students work together and learn how to think critically by breaking down, analysing and managing real cases.”
RMIT students examined cases where a person may have been wrongly convicted, assisted in exonerating that person if there was evidence of a wrongful conviction, and campaigned for the reform of criminal justice system issues that led to these injustices.
“From day one they’re looking at real case files, real medical records, real court documents and real expert evidence,” Ruyters said.
Research conducted by the Innocence Initiative at RMIT also cast a shadow of doubt over the conviction of Boronika Hothnyang for the murder of William Awu in 2011.
Students’ work on this case included participating in a series of workshops with Telstra on the development of a virtual crime scene tool that was used to analyse key aspects of the crime.
Cases for the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative at RMIT are sourced through individuals, the Bridge of Hope Foundation, word-of-mouth in the prison system and via solicitors.
Anyone who claims factual innocence can apply to have the matter reinvestigated by the Innocence Initiative by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or writing to the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative at RMIT, GPO Box 2476, Melbourne VIC 3001.
Story: Shelley Brady