Bias and Injustice – A David and Goliath Story
Samuel Alexander disappeared in 2009. His body was later found buried at his family home. Despite a lack of DNA, eyewitnesses, or murder weapon – and with no cause or date of death – his only son Mark was convicted of murder. A law graduate, Mark has been investigating his own case for the last 10 years in a bid to clear his name, uncovering evidence of his father’s involvement in confidence trickery and fraud. In this article, Mark considers how this mysterious past may have contributed to his wrongful conviction.
I grew up in a fortress. Strange rooms and cabinets remained forever locked, curtains always drawn, and the phone never to be answered. If dad was leaving with his briefcase, I knew not to ask him where he was going. It was time to hunker down for a few days until he got back. ‘Don’t open the door unless it’s me, speak to no-one’. While he was away, I’d scour the place for clues to what he was up to. Everywhere there seemed to be documents under one alias or another, but no answers. My mother and I always had a sense that he kept us in the dark to protect us. It seemed pretty cool, as a kid, living this mysterious existence and learning his next cover story. My childhood was full of strange disappearances, not least of all my mother’s. It was only in my twenties that I discovered she was still alive.
So when the police turned up at my apartment one evening, many years later, asking where dad was, my first instinct was to protect him. I hadn’t heard from him in months by this point, but getting the authorities involved would have been the last thing he’d have wanted me to do. Holding the fort meant keeping quiet.
As the officers led me in handcuffs to their car, I caught one last glance at our balcony, certain I’d be back before long. The shock of the arrest had left me completely disorientated. ‘Suspicion of murder’ didn’t make any sense to me. I was absolutely convinced that dad was fine and just up to his old tricks. It never really sank in that I was a ‘suspect’ for anything. I kept expecting dad to rush in to the police interview room and sort this all out, but he never came. I didn’t bother getting a lawyer to start with, ‘why would I need one, this was just routine, right?’.
Wrong. I didn’t know it yet, but my father had been killed, and there I was – unrepresented and confused – setting off all kinds of red flags in a bid to shield him from any trouble he might be in. It was the perfect storm.
Cracks in the investigation
Once I was in their sights, things went downhill pretty quickly. Supporting testimony offered by my mum in police interview wasn’t shared with my defence team. Samples taken at the burial site weren’t bagged correctly, so degraded in transit before they could ever be tested. When I gave officers a list of dad’s aliases, the leads weren’t followed. And despite there being no sign of the murder itself having taken place at the house, no efforts were made to search the local area for clues.
Instead of being guided by the facts, the facts were reinterpreted to fit the suspect, me. The pathology reports gave a two-month window within which dad’s death might have occurred. Everything then focused on fixing the murder as close as possible to the beginning of that window in order to provide me with just enough time and motive to render what they already believed to be true plausible. It was classic confirmation bias.
The full extent of this partiality began to reveal itself about a year after my trial, when a friend of mine stumbled across a new report. It revealed the existence of a lengthy inquiry conducted by Bucks County Council, following a referral by the police. No-one of relevance had been notified, neither my family, nor my defence lawyers. Yet three police officers were sitting on a board that had met 6 times during and prior to my trial, uncovering evidence that directly contradicted claims being made against me in Court.
That a meeting with my father had ‘occurred’ 3 days after the jury was being told he had died didn’t seem to matter. We were left completely in the dark, while the records – never having been secured – were eventually deleted. By the time we knew about it, it was too late.
Equality of Arms
Being remanded into custody leaves you vulnerable, powerless, and wholly dependent on the State. The structural imbalances have to be mitigated if you are to get a fair trial, because you can’t investigate your own case or send your own forensic team to the crime scene. You rely on the police to do that for you, and get it right. At law school I learnt how the police always ‘pursue all reasonable avenues of inquiry’, whether they point towards a suspect or away from them, so I felt pretty confident that this process would absolve me and identify the real killers. But for this to work, you need a completely impartial investigation batting for both sides. As I was to discover, however, the police had already been pronouncing my guilt on house-to-house inquiries before they’d even charged me.
The fatal flaw in a theoretical ideal like ‘equality of arms’ lies in the adversarial nature of the police’s role. They can’t simultaneously demolish their own case whilst also trying to build it. One side has to give way. Once the balance tips in the wrong direction, it’s almost impossible to stop. This can very quickly lead to the kind of tunnel vision seen in my own case. It’s probably the single biggest cause of miscarriages of justice. The problem is, it’s entrenched and systemic. With limited resources and time, the police have to prioritise certain inquiries over others, and this inevitably means sacrificing leads that point away from a suspect. In this way, critical exculpatory evidence can be very easily lost. It isn’t a malicious policy, but rather a product of economic constraints and a target-driven culture. Still, it needs fixing, otherwise this will just keep on happening to more innocent people. Most of us will never realise there’s a problem until we’re in the dock and it’s too late. I know I didn’t.