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Joint enterprise: The law that can lock you away for being a witness

This article is over 7 years, 11 months old
As a parliamentary select committee questioned joint enterprise convictions last week, Ken Olende spoke to campaigners fighting against the law
Issue 2420
Patricia and Gloria, activists against joint enterprise
Patricia and Gloria, activists against joint enterprise (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Kenneth “Kaspa” Alexander is a young black man in prison for life for the murder of Michael Campbell in 2005.

Kenneth didn’t take part in the fight when Campbell was murdered, and tried to stop it breaking out by saying they “didn’t want any trouble”. 

He turned his back and was struck from behind. Dazed, he took no further part.

But he was convicted of the murder under the joint enterprise law, because phone records show he made calls to friends to warn them of potential trouble.

And as he knew that some of them sometimes carried knives—though he never did—he was seen as responsible.

Joint enterprise, or “common purpose”, allows for two or more people to be charged with a crime because they were “in it together”.

The message for young black men is clear. If you’re hanging around with friends and a fight breaks out, you could face life behind bars if someone is killed.

The Crown Prosecution Service has increased the use of the 300 year old law dramatically in recent years. It says this is to deal with gang violence. 

Families of prisoners launched Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association (Jengba) 2010.

It currently supports nearly 500 people convicted under the law. Almost all of them are working class and 80 percent are black.

Gloria Morrison and Patricia Brown were involved in setting up Jengba and work for it as volunteers.


They argue that the law should be abolished and that people convicted without any real evidence should be released.

Gloria said, “They only use it on marginalised groups, and particularly young black men.

“The officers who stood by and watched as Ian Tomlinson was hit weren’t charged for not stopping a crime, they were all “in it togther.” 

“We’ve got an endemically racist justice system and if you put a group of black men in the dock and bandy about words like gangs, the assumptions that juries come to!” 

Gloria is worried that prosecutors keep finding new ways to influence juries. “Now Youtube footage is a problem. We’ve got a lad who was an up and coming rapper and they showed him in a video singing ‘get the feds’, or whatever.

“Then there’s what they call ‘cell site’ evidence. If you made a call on your mobile to someone who went on to do a crime, you can be convicted. Most of the time they don’t know what was even said.”

Many of the cases after the 2011 riots were tried using joint enterprise. Patricia said, “People were convicted just because they were there.”

Gloria said, “We saw how easy it was. We are going the American way where people are plea-bargaining.”

Patricia added, “The overloading of charges can leave you looking at double figures in sentencing. So as a relative you are tempted to accept the plea.”

Jailed for crimes they didn’t commit

Amanda Allden was a drug user in an abusive relationship.

Her partner beat someone to death in their home in 2008. She said, “I went to the police to tell them what happened. 

“I thought they would help me. I have been given a life sentence for something I didn’t do.”

Jordan Cunliffe was walking home with friends when Garry Newlove mistakenly accused them of vandalism.

Some got into a row with Newlove, who received a blow from which he later died. 

Jordan couldn’t see what was happening as he suffers from a degenerative eye disease. But he is now serving a 12 year sentence for murder.

Jonathon Long is in jail for murder. He was present but did not take part.

The victim was killed with a brick. How could he have foresight to know that someone “might” use a brick, found at the scene in the attack? 

MPs told of more and more injustices

A parliamentary select committee examined whether joint enterprise is being used unfairly on Wednesday of last week. Jengba was included in those who made submissions. 

Cambridge University law professor Matthew Dyson told the select committee the fact that convictions are not based on evidence is a serious issue.  He said foresight is “very easy to convict”.

Dyson said the whole law is wrong and produces miscarriages of justice.

“We’re generating more and more people who don’t understand why they’ve been convicted,” he added.

Criminologist Ben Crewe gave evidence showing a shocking racial bias for joint enterprise convictions. 

He found that, of young people serving long sentences, 30 percent were black (African-Caribbean). This compares to 13 percent of the general prison population. 

Under joint enterprise, the proportion of black prisoners goes up to 37 percent. And 37 percent of people jailed under joint enterprise have a sentence of 25 years or more, compared to 20 percent for others.

‘A knowing look is enough’

Joint enterprise is very difficult to appeal. “If you’re guilty by assumption or guilty by association then you can’t find fresh evidence,” said Gloria. 

 “We wrote to justice secretary Chris Grayling asking how in a spontaneous act of violence can you have foresight and intention.

“He came back with ‘A knowing look is enough’.

“We produce a newsletter for prisoners that eats up money. The prison service won’t let us post a bundle to the prison. 

“We have to individually stamp each one or they ‘Can’t locate the prisoner’. As if! 

“But it means people are meeting up inside who didn’t know they’d been convicted in the same way.”

Joint enterprise was used to convict two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers.

 But Gloria still thinks the law should be scrapped.

She said, “They had joint enterprise when the murder happened. So why didn’t they use it then? After Doreen Lawrence campaigned for all those years they had to change the law of double jeopardy which is another issue.” 

But given the blanket way the law has been applied to young black people, “It raises the question of why they didn’t do all five.”

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