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JENGbA & Students investigate the legitimatcy of joint enterprise convictions

JEAP Birmingham Students
JEAP Blackburn Students
JEAP 2018 with JENGbA
JENGbA by Aiden Alexander

A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t have much of an idea of what “Joint Enterprise” actually was. I didn’t realise that it is a law, which states that if a person is considered to be involved or linked with someone who has committed murder, then that person can be “prosecuted and punished as if he were a principal offender” (CPS). And I had no idea of its huge significance, or its impact on so many people across the country.

My cousin, who is studying Psychology and Criminology at the University of Salford, told me all of this – and I still didn’t quite get it. So she told me about an event she’d heard about, in which I would get to learn more about Joint Enterprise, and its real life and practical impacts. Held by the anti-Joint Enterprise campaign group JENGbA, the event was voluntarily attended by a group of university students, who were being briefed for an extracurricular research project.

During the briefing, I was amazed at what I learned.

Under Joint Enterprise, “foresight” is considered to be a sufficient enough reason to convict someone of murder. In other words, if a prosecutor can convincingly make the case that a person had prior knowledge of and the ability to stop a murder being carried out by an associate, then they are just as guilty of the murder themselves. But this is such a subjective basis on which to label someone a murderer and slap them with a mandatory life sentence in prison.

Often, the evidence that is used to support accusations of foresight is tenuous and questionably interpreted. Facts are twisted and distorted to fit incriminating narratives, which are more often than not centred on race- and class-based stereotypes. And, disturbingly, the prosecution usually has to do little (if anything) to actually prove such evidence.

This has tangible benefits for the prosecutor: for them, the longer the case lasts and the more people they convict during it, the more profitable and impressive it is.

As a result, many of the people convicted under Joint Enterprise are vulnerable, easy targets, whose links to an offender may be entirely separate from the case. During JENGbA’s event, for example, we heard from women whose families – including young children – were serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also heard about the case of Laura Mitchell, who was seen by multiple witnesses to be looking for her shoes in a carpark when a fatal blow was delivered to a man outside of a nearby pub – and who is now a convicted murderer. Other examples of people jailed under Joint Enterprise have included those who have appeared in music videos with offenders, members of a motorcycle club that was interpreted to have been a gang, and those who dressed in a supposedly threatening or incriminating way.

But the vagueness of the evidence does not make the conviction any less serious for an innocent person. In fact, it makes it a lot harder for them to prove that they really are innocent. When the evidence used to convict a person is based on shaky ground and questionable information, it can be very difficult to find any hard evidence that directly contradicts it. Out of the hundreds of appeals that JENGbA has worked on, only one has so far been successful.

However, in what can be seen as a positive step forward, this unjust practice of Joint Enterprise was itself put on trial by the Supreme Court in 2016. Unsurprisingly, it was found that British law enforcement have been interpreting it wrong for the last 30 years, and using it far too liberally. But this ruling has not been applied retrospectively, and so those who have been wrongly convicted under Joint Enterprise in the past have little recourse to appeal. For these people, this is a very hollow victory.

With my newly acquired knowledge of such large-scale injustice, embedded so deep in our criminal justice system, it was amazing to be at JENGbA’s event. The group of young criminology students who were present have dedicated their free time to researching past cases, and are currently preparing to present their findings at an upcoming event in London. They are not doing this for marks at university or for money. The students in the room all had an understanding of the suffering that Joint Enterprise convictions disproportionately cause to vulnerable and marginalised people, and a strong sense that this was wrong.

Organisations like JENGbA are therefore helping to start a much-needed conversation, and are mobilising those who are best-placed to make a difference. This is important work. But to strengthen their advances, we too must start talking about Joint Enterprise, and to ask ourselves the difficult questions of who this draconian law really serves, and why it has been allowed to go on for so long.