Sharon Akers was convicted of the murder of her partner Nick Doolan on 19 May 2004 after the jury rejected her defence of provocation. Doolan subjected Sharon to violence, abuse and humiliation throughout their ‘on and off’ six year relationship. He harassed her sister and mother and often told Sharon that he had had sex with her mother, thereby alienating her from her closest ally. During their relationship Sharon attempted suicide nine times and on one occasion was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Six weeks before his death, Doolan was arrested for assaulting Sharon. Unknown to Sharon until after her conviction, the solicitors who represented her at her original murder trial had previously advised Doolan in relation to the assault offence against Sharon. The grounds of Sharon’s appeal included the argument that her solicitors may have failed to put forward defences in her best interest because of the obvious conflict of interest, having previously represented the deceased in an assault charge against Sharon.
Supported by Justice for Women, Sharon appealed against her conviction with the leave of the single judge on 19 July 2007. The appeal was dismissed. At her trial, Sharon had relied on the defences of lack of intent to kill and provocation. There was insufficient psychiatric evidence to rely on a defence of diminished responsibility, although the defence had been able to adduce evidence that Sharon suffered from an emotionally unstable personality disorder of the borderline type.
The relationship between Sharon and the deceased was volatile from the outset. There were two physical assaults committed by the deceased on 18 July 2003 and 4/5 September 2003 which were of particular importance to the defence at trial. After the assault on 4/5 September, the deceased bombarded Sharon and her family with a great number of abusive text messages. On the night of the killing Sharon had gone to the deceased’s address to tell him to stop sending abusive messages to her family. She armed herself with a knife for the purpose of self-defence. The deceased laughed at her when he opened the door and this triggered in Sharon a sudden loss of self-control.
The prosecution case against Sharon was that the killing had been planned. The prosecution was able to adduce compelling evidence in the form of a text message from Sharon to her mother sent shortly before the killing in which she had said she was going to get a knife and kill the deceased. The prosecution also relied on a number of text messages that had been sent by Sharon to the deceased.
The appeal was based on the grounds that the solicitors who acted for Sharon at her trial, Meldrum Young, were acting whilst under a conflict of interest. Further, that this had an effect on the conduct of the trial in that there were deficiencies in the case preparation. The firm had previously acted for the deceased in 1999 when he faced a charge of the attempted murder of a neighbour. Sharon had been aware of this. However she was unaware, at the time of her trial, that they had also acted for him in relation to the incident of physical assault against her on 18 July and were in the process of acting for him in relation to the (ongoing) investigation concerning the attack on 4/5 September.
There was an issue between Meldrum Young and Sharon about whether or not she had been told of their involvement with the deceased. Although Meldrum Young claim that she consented to their representing her in these circumstances, they could not produce a single piece of documentation to verify this. In view of this, the Court decided to hear evidence from Andy Kerry (the solicitor who had conduct of the case). He was cross-examined at length by Michael Mansfield QC.
The defence argued that a failure on the part of the trial lawyers to adduce evidence from the Lister hospital of Sharon’s injuries (sustained on 4th/5th September) was a consequence of the conflict of interest. Not only did they fail to adduce the medical evidence, they actually went as far as to agree that “there were no visible injuries”. The Court observed that “no proper explanation has been given” for the failure to obtain this evidence in time.
Unfortunately, the Court held that the evidence would not have been sufficient to increase Sharon’s credibility as to the extent of the assault on 4/5 September. The only text messages which had been available at the time of the trial were those which were in the inbox of the deceased. He had made a point of saving them and he had used them to exculpate himself from the attack on 18 July. The defence argued that they had therefore been put before the jury out of context. Further, no instructions were taken from Sharon on this aspect of the evidence, so that when she gave evidence she was taken by surprise. The Court, however, held that she could not have given better answers than she did.
Another complaint focused on the fact that the psychiatric evidence about Sharon’s self-harm (there had been around ten suicide attempts during her relationship with the deceased) was not used at trial. Much of this concerned previous consistent statements which would have gone to rebut allegations of fabrication. The Court held however that it was ‘double-edged’ and that the decision not to put the material before the jury was “entirely justified”. The
Court however, was disturbed by leading trial counsel’s decision not to disclose this material to his own psychiatrist: “We are, however troubled by the fact that it was withheld, it would appear, from Dr Kinane who was nonetheless called to give evidence. We have not had any explanation from counsel as to why that decision was taken. In view of the fact that that material was understandably withheld from the Court, it is difficult to see how counsel could properly call Dr Kinane knowing that she had not seen all the relevant material.”
This gives a flavour of the unsatisfactory way in which Sharon was represented at her trial. The Court was not unsympathetic to Sharon’s situation, as the following illustrates: “[A]s will be appreciated from what we have already said about the nature of the appellant’s defence, this was a case in which she was seeking to show that she was involved in an abusive relationship with the deceased who was the dominant personality and to whom, as is sadly so often the case, she felt continually drawn back, so that ultimately tragedy was to be seen not in the context of the 19 December 2003 alone but in the overall context of the relationship between the two of them.”
But despite this, ultimately the Court was not prepared to hold that the trial was unfair. Sharon has now made a formal complaint about Meldrum Young and the inadequacy of their representation, in particular in relation to the fact that they had acted under a conflict of interest.
Justice for Women is concerned about the issue at the heart of this appeal. Women who find themselves in the same position as Sharon are vulnerable to conflict. This is not the first time we have come upon a case where the woman is represented by the same firm that has acted for her violent partner, now deceased. It is likely to be the case that these women have not had previous experience of the criminal justice system, whereas the violent man they have killed may well have had such experience. Particularly in smaller towns and rural areas where there may only be one or two specialist criminal defence firms, women arrested for possibly the first time may naturally decide to obtain legal advice from the same firm which has represented the deceased in the past on the basis that the firm is known to her, without realising the implications of doing so. We hope that Sharon’s complaint may prevent similar miscarriages of justice occurring as a result of such firms acting under a conflict.
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