Imagine being convicted of a crime based on about four seconds of grainy CCTV footage taken at night.
This was the reality for Aboriginal man Richard James Slater – who was unfairly convicted of several serious offences on the basis of unreliable CCTV evidence.
It was alleged that Mr Slater and several other men with covered faces got into a car after breaking into an adult store and stealing synthetic drugs, batteries and cash.
While most of the footage shows their faces covered, there is a part showing one of the men getting into a car with his head exposed. That part lasts for just four seconds, and the prosecution extracted just two stills from it because the CCTV camera was only taking images intermittently.
Police claimed that the man was Mr Slater, despite several troubling factors. For starters, Mr Slater’s face shape and skin colour are different from that shown in the footage. The man portrayed in the footage has fair skin and an oval, long and thin face, while Mr Slate is dark skinned, of ‘Aboriginal appearance’ and has a totally different face shape!
Almost unbelievably, the jury nevertheless convicted Mr Slater of several serious offences under the NSW Crimes Act 1900:
– Aggravated breaking, entering and stealing under section 112(2),
– Being carried in a conveyance knowing it to have been taken without the owners consent under section 154A(1)(b), and
– Five counts of obtaining property by deception (fraud charges) under section 192E(1)(a),
What did the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal say?
Mr Slater appealed his conviction to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal (NSWCCA). Ten appeal points were raised in total, and the Crown (prosecution) conceded during the appeal that there were errors and deficiencies in the evidence against Mr Slater.
The Judges of the NSWCCA viewed the CCTV footage several times, concluding that it was not capable of showing that Mr Slater was the person depicted. The Court therefore found the jury’s conclusion of guilt to be unsafe and unreasonable.
In December 2015, the Court delivered its judgment acquitting the defendant of all seven charges.
But while justice ultimately prevailed, Mr Slater still had to live with some unfortunate consequences. As Justice Beech-Jones stated, “the Applicant was in custody… due to errors which were so obvious they simply should not have occurred”, and he was subjected to the ordeal of a lengthy prosecution, trial, conviction and appeal process.
Can CCTV footage alone ever be enough to secure a conviction?
CCTV cameras seem to be everywhere these days – at train stations, shopping centres, streets and just about any public place you can think of. So it’s no surprise that CCTV footage is often relied upon in criminal cases – by both the prosecution and defence.
CCTV footage alone can certainly be enough to suggest that a person is guilty – especially if someone is clearly ‘caught in the act’.
But it’s important to remember that relying too heavily on CCTV footage be dangerous. Most CCTV cameras do not film constantly, but take photographs intermittently – such as every one or two seconds This can mean that crucial parts of an incident are left out– such as a punch thrown by one of the people involved in an altercation. Identifying a person from grainy or unclear footage is also fraught with risk – as Mr Slater’s case illustrates.
So while CCTV footage plays an integral part in many criminal cases, it’s important to be mindful of its limitations.