Nailing The Dissenter
Mark Barnsley: a miscarriage of justice
When Mark Barnsley was attacked by a mob of drunken students in 1994 no one predicted he would spend the next eight years in prison for GBH. But then Mark Barnsley is a political activist. On the eve of Barnsley's release, Matt Carr pays a visit to Whitemoor Prison and investigates strong evidence to suggest a gross miscarriage of justice may have had political motives.
12th June 2002
According to the Sheffield Star it was a clear cut case from the beginning. A bunch of students had been "celebrating the end of their exams" at the Pomona pub on the city's Eccleshall Road and had made "innocuous remarks" about a woman sitting nearby with a baby in a pram. According to the newspaper, the woman's companion then "went berserk" with a knife slashing them wildly before making his escape. Five students from Sheffield Hallam University were wounded; two ended up in intensive care and three others in hospital with stab and slash wounds.
In a city where two universities constitute a vital economic resource, such a brutal act of student-bashing was big news, and a high priority for the police. Within a week the alleged attacker was arrested and identified as Mark Barnsley, a 33-three year old freelance writer, wine taster, jazz enthusiast, climber and father of three children. Barnsley was also a committed political activist and editor of the Sheffield Anarchist.
There were 15 students getting drunk outside the Pomona pub on the evening of June 8, 1994. All independent witnesses describe seeing a number of students attacking Barnsley. No independent witnesses saw Barnsley attack the students.
For reasons associated with his political activism and sense of self-reliance, Barnsley did not report the incident to the police despite having multiple cuts and bruises. Five of the students, however, went to the police claiming Barnsley had gone berserk and had seriously assaulted them. In the subsequent cascade of incredible events, Barnsley tumbled through the justice system and ended up with a 12-year prison sentence for grievous bodily harm.
Barnsley's own account of what happened outside the Pomona is radically different from the students' version. In his statement he told police he had dropped into the pub garden for a quick drink accompanied by his three-week old baby and a family friend, Jane Leafborough.
Whilst Barnsley was inside buying drinks a group of students sitting at a nearby table began to abuse and insult Leafborough. The students were obviously drunk and the abuse continued after Barnsley returned. When he remonstrated with them the students pushed, punched and wrestled him to the ground. At some point during the melee one of the students pulled a knife and Barnsley grabbed it to prevent himself being stabbed. A chaotic and vicious assault then took place, with Barnsley trying to hold onto the knife and get away while the students chased him out through the car park and onto the main road, punching and kicking him the whole time. They finally made him release the knife and then let him go.
Not only did Barnsley deny all knowledge of the students' injuries, he also claimed extensive injuries to himself, including two broken ribs, a cut to the head and bruising to the face, head and body. His account was supported by Leafborough, who described how she had seen the students 'kicking and punching the living daylights out of him'. At this point the police might have concluded Barnsley was as much a victim as the students claimed to be. However, the readiness of the police to believe the students and effectively ignore both Barnsley and independent witnesses led to Barnsley being charged with five counts of wounding with intent to inflict grievous bodily arm. No charges were brought against the students.
Barnsley did have a previous conviction for a serious crime. As an idealistic teenager he had thrown himself headlong into the cause of Palestinian solidarity and joined Fatah as a volunteer in 1978.
In 1980 he was arrested in Dover with a small quantity of explosives he'd agreed to carry over for use in a PLO safe-breaking operation. The fact that the authorities knew Barnsley had been just a 'mule' for the Palestinians was reflected in a three-year sentence. He served two.
Following his release Barnsley involved himself in political activity in his home city, editing Sheffield Anarchist and participating in anti-nuclear and anti-fascist activities, miners strike support work and other local campaigns of a non-violent nature. But Barnsley's activism brought constant attention from local police officers at Woodseats Police Station.
"There was a period in the 1980s when a week didn't go by without the cops 'visiting' me at home, stopping me in the street, searching me, arresting me," recalls Barnsley.
On one occasion he was arrested by police whilst walking down a street with a friend and accused of breaking a window of a local Co-op. The police had no evidence and the charges failed. Barnsley initiated civil proceedings against the police for malicious prosecution but did not follow the case through. Sheffield police, on the other hand, were definitely following through.
"Some of the raids on Fargate [the city's main pedestrian thoroughfair] when we were street selling the Sheffield Anarchist were like something out of the Sweeney," says Barnsley. "Half-a-dozen cars driving at high speed onto a pedestrian precinct to try to seize a few papers."
Sheffield police managed to secure a conviction for criminal damage after catching Barnsley putting up posters in protest at local bus fare hikes. Barnsley refused to pay the fine and the authorities sent him to prison again.
Now a freakish incident in a pub garden had delivered him into their hands once more and, by a remarkable coincidence, the station chief on the night of his arrest was the same Special Branch officer who had arrested him in Dover in 1980.
Barnsley's trial took place over three weeks in July 1995. Even the limited excerpts available from the original court proceedings reveal glaring inconsistencies in the students' account of what happened. Although Barnsley was supposed to have begun the violence by dragging a student called Paul Shepherd into the carpark, Shepherd himself admitted that he had been drunk and had "gone apeshit". He even admitted punching Barnsley without provocation. Other members of the group of students also described how they had seen 'Shep' chasing Barnsley into the car park. A builder overlooking the carpark had witnessed another complainant, Darren Thursfield, running after Barnsley swearing and wielding a beer glass. Thursfield told the court that he was trying to act as a peacemaker. Both prosecution and defence witnesses described Barnsley collapsing under a weight of bodies and being attacked by the students on various occasions, always in superior numbers. Despite the presence of so many witnesses, no one saw Barnsley stabbing the students and even the complainants themselves could not say when or how their wounds had occurred.
Jane Leafborough, Barnsley's companion on that afternoon, told the court how the students had begun calling her names in the pub garden whilst Barnsley was inside buying some drinks. According to her testimony the drunk students had called her a "cunt" and "a sad cow". Barnsley described how one of the students, a six-foot five man with a previous conviction for making obscene phonecalls, had told him "I want to fuck your baby".
Yet the jury found Barnsley guilty on two counts of intent to cause bodily harm and three counts on the lesser charge of malicious wounding. On the one hand the reduced charges seemed to suggest the jury believed part of Barnsley's account, though not enough to find him not guilty on all counts. The problem was that five students had been injured, and Barnsley had admitted holding the knife which had presumably caused the wounds. Had Barnsley pleaded self-defence the jury could then have considered whether or not the force used to defend himself was excessive, but Barnsley himself always denied using the knife or even that he'd had the chance to fight back. He was adamant that, if the students had knife wounds, then they must have injured themselves in the process of their own reckless assault.
This was possible, particularly given that independent witnesses reported seeing a bundle of bodies, but it was certainly more difficult to prove to a jury than straight self-defence, especially since the self-reliant anarchist had chosen not to go to the police in the first place. Even though no one had actually seen Barnsley use the knife, the prosecution asserted the some wounds were so serious that they could only have been inflicted intentionally. Thus Darren Thursfield's wounds were described as "almost fatal", despite the fact that he was released from hospital within 24 hours. A 3cm and 2cm cut to one of the student's abdomen was described as "effectively disemboweled", whilst another two students were described as being "scarred for life".
Secondly, the prosecution argued that Barnsley knew how to use a knife, basing their case on pages from a British wartime combat manual called 'All In Fighting' found in Barnsley's maisonette; a document Barnsley claims did not belong to him. Police also found some Swiss army knives, tents, ropes and other outdoor equipment, asserting in court that these demonstrated Barnsley was a combat fanatic with a knife fetish. 'A self-styled survival expert who developed the lethal skills to exist in his own warped fantasy world', as the Sheffield Star put it in its frequently lurid summary of the prosecution's arguments. In reality though, Barnsley was an equipment reviewer for climbing and outdoor magazines, writing under the pen name Jack Black.
None of this really explained why a man known to his friends and acquaintances as a caring individual with no history of violence, should suddenly decide to reveal a 'lethal' side. The day before his arrest, Barnsley had been out researching a walking guide for children in the Peak District for a local publisher. Why would an idealistic anarchist with no history of violence suddenly carry out a crazed attack on a group of strangers whilst out with his three-week-old baby?
And what of Barnsley's own injuries, which were so severe that a medical examination in prison a year later was still able to fully corroborate their extent? Even with the guilty verdict, the clear evidence that the students had been involved in the violence might have been a mitigating factor in his judgement. Instead Barnsley received a 12-year prison sentence for which Judge Baker cited the "utmost gravity" of the offences and their "appalling consequences on the victims" as justification.
The Appeal Court judges upheld both the sentence and the conviction. In the Appeal Court judgement obtained by SQUALL, the wounds to the five students are cited as justification for the severity of the sentence, despite the judges' own acknowledgement that "the students became boisterous, having had a considerable amount to drink". The judges also noted that "after the incident began, it is right to observe, the students used violence towards the appellant..." but referred to Barnsley's 'considerable expertise regarding knives' and agreed that "long sentences of imprisonment were inevitable in a case as bad as this".
However, court precedent certainly does not make such a sentence "inevitable". In 1996, for example, three drunken Cardiff students beat to death a disabled man and received sentences of 18 months to two years.
After serving eight hard years of his 12-year sentence, Barnsley is due to be released from Whitemoor prison this month. Having always asserted his innocence, Barnsley has remained resolutely defiant throughout the course of his incarceration; a position which brought him harsh treatment. He has been moved around the country's jails frequently. Although he has made several protests about the conditions of his incarceration, he has never been involved in any incidence of violence in prison.
A spokesman from the Sheffield Star told SQUALL they regarded Barnsley's supporters as "dangerous and unbalanced individuals". There is little doubt the world would have forgotten about Mark Barnsley if not for the photocopied leaflets distributed by his dedicated campaign group.
From the beginning the Star seems to have accepted the students' presentation of themselves as innocent victims, but despite a failed attempt to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights, Barnsley remains clear and unwavering about what happened at the Pomona eight years ago.
"I couldn't believe what I was reading when I saw it in the paper the next day," he told SQUALL in Whitemoor prison on the eve of his expected release. "It was like two different incidents." In hindsight Barnsley believes his defence lawyers were too complacent about getting a non-guilty verdict, and did not even submit forensic evidence to the court suggesting that the wounds to the students could have been caused 'with minimal or moderate force'. Does he regret not pleading self-defence? "You can regret a lot of things, but I didn't use the knife to defend myself. I would have used by fists, it I'd had the chance, but not a knife."
Today Barnsley has a new solicitor and a raft of new evidence is being presented to the Criminal Cases Review Commission which, he hopes, will reopen the case and eventually exonerate him. Was all this the result of a malign conspiracy to punish a troublesome political dissident? Or was Barnsley just a victim of an inflexible legal machinery that his student attackers set in motion to exonerate themselves, and which cascaded towards a staggering prison sentence entirely disproportionate with the incident?
To this day none of the students has apologised for their role in Barnsley's downfall or even recognised that they did anything to cause it. From time to time they have even resurfaced in the local press to condemn his campaigners and demand he be kept in jail. And so a man who went out for a quick drink in a pub garden with his new born baby and a family friend has lost eight years of his life, and all because a gang of drunk and unruly students were "celebrating their exams". That may or may not be the result of a politically-motivated conspiracy, but it has nothing to do with justice.
The Justice for Mark Barnsley Campaign, PO Box 381, Huddersfield HD1 3XX, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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