Edinburgh Evening News

May 9, 2007
Claiming killer innocent part of search for truth

SANDRA DICK (sdick@edinburghnews.com)

Sandra Lean
SEARCH FOR TRUTH: Sandra Lean says her book came about because she is driven by the need to know the right person is locked up. Picture: JULIE BULL

THE heavy doors clanged shut behind Sandra Lean as she made her way inside a notorious young offenders' institution to meet one of Scotland's most infamous prisoners.

With piles of legal papers, transcripts, notes and scribbled questions in her arms, she sat down to look into convicted killer Luke Mitchell's face - and was troubled by what saw.

"I thought: 'Oh, he's just a bairn, he's just a laddie'," she recalls. "He looked so much younger, people have forgotten how young. But he is a strong lad with a brilliant sense of humour. One who still believes this is just one huge cock-up, that it's just a matter of time before it gets sorted out.

"He believes they will get to the truth and that will be it. It'll be sorted - and he will be out."

The notion that the now 18-year-old Luke Mitchell - convicted of brutally slaying girlfriend Jodi Jones in a vicious attack which shocked Scotland - could be released following an appeal hearing at the end of the summer might well send a tremor through the tightly-knit communities around Dalkeith. Areas like Easthouses, Newbattle and Mayfield were plunged into deep shock four years ago when the 14-year-old's mutilated body was found beside a woodland path.

But the idea that he may be helped on his way to freedom by a local mother of two teenage girls who, fearful for her own children's safety set out in an attempt to prove his guilt only to discover that he may, after all, be innocent, has enraged some.

For Sandra, a 43-year-old psychology and sociology graduate whose home is just a five-minute drive from the wooded lane where Jodi met her death, has been one of the very few to suggest the unthinkable: that Luke Mitchell just might be innocent.

It's a suggestion that has certainly sparked high emotions. "Yes, there has been a bit of intimidation since I started this," nods Sandra, reflecting on four years spent trying to fathom out who really has Jodi Jones' blood on their hands. "I've been followed around, intimidated. It's not been very pleasant, and you'd have to be stupid not to feel uncomfortable about that. But as a mother, I'd rather know they have the right person behind bars."

In her hands, she holds the book she has finally just seen published. No Smoke: The Shocking Truth About British Justice highlights seven high-profile criminal convictions - including Mitchell's - each of them she firmly believes to be a gross miscarriage of justice. It includes cases like that of Sion Jenkins - the stepfather of Billie-Jo Jenkins who has finally been cleared of her murder - and Gordon Park, whose wife Carol Ann Park's body was found in the Lake District 30 years after she went missing.

But it is Mitchell's conviction and the court case that held Scotland gripped by the details of his oddball existence, drugs, two-timing and alleged obsession with the occult - that may incur the displeasure of her local community.

"The public opinion was so much against Luke Mitchell and the Mitchell family that to start speaking in support and start questioning things has been risky," admits Sandra.

"I was in a shop recently, talking to someone I know when another woman came in. The person I was speaking to mentioned that I'd been looking at the Luke Mitchell case, and this other woman - you know the kind, knuckles scrapping on the floor - turned and growled something like: 'Well, you'd just better watch yourself'."
Luke Mitchell
KILLER?  Luke Mitchell leaving court.

There have been other, even more worrying incidents which Sandra prefers not to discuss publicly. Yet she is so driven to lift the lid on what she sees as fundamental flaws in the justice system which have sent Mitchell to jail for 20 years, that she's prepared to take the flak: "I'll just not shop in that shop for a while," she shrugs.

While the police still insist the case is closed, her personal conclusion is that Jodi's killer could not have been the then 14-year-old Mitchell and that the legal case around the St David's High School pupil was based on circumstantial evidence, and the investigation botched.

But to establish the facts of the case it meant carrying out her own investigation of the case - interviewing key people, tracing and timing the route Mitchell was alleged to have taken and scanning hundreds of pages of evidence, statements and transcripts.

She even walked, then ran the path, crawled through rough land beyond the wall where Jodi died and attempted to figure out how Mitchell could have committed the crime in the time it was suggested, only to find it wasn't possible. She did it not to upset Jodi's family, but to ensure the police had the right man.

"I can't imagine what Jodi's family have been through. And for them to have to face the possibility that it wasn't Luke who did this - how betrayed will they feel? How devastating for them.

"But my girls used a path to walk to Newbattle High School - not the path where Jodi died, but one not unlike it. I wanted to know that they were safe," she explains. "The more I looked, the more pieces didn't fit."

There are several areas which set her alarms bells ringing: the lack of DNA evidence and the question mark over eyewitness sightings of Mitchell near the scene; the fact Jodi's body had been left, uncovered on a rainy night before forensic officers arrived and the presence of two young men on a moped near the scene who were both quickly eliminated from the enquiry.

Soon Mitchell was being portrayed as an oddball who played with knives, smoked dope to excess and penned essays praising Satan - quickly emerging as the chief suspect. "It was as if someone had decided it was Luke that did it, and that was it," claims Sandra.

The root of the issue, she argues, is a justice system which encourages collusion between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police - a system aimed at gluing together evidence with a prosecution case but which some believe prompts investigators and lawyers to establish the story of the incident and then make the facts fit.

"I wrote this because I was so bloody angry," she explains. "We were all trotting along thinking things were one way when they are not. I wanted to raise awareness and get change. I want people to get as mad as a box of frogs too, to say they don't want innocent people locked up and I want to be sure that we are safe.

"Don't give us this bull that we have locked up someone and that's it. I want to know that the person they have is the right person so when I go to the shop for a bottle of wine or a loaf of bread he isn't going jump out at me.

"Everyone says you are safe, he is off the streets. But in so many cases I've looked at the person that did it is still free and it could be anyone, it could be the person across the street or over the fence. It might be your or your friends' kids who are in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Her inquiries took her to Mitchell's mother, Corinne, and eventually to Polmont Young Offenders Institute, where the teenager remains behind bars.

She had already met Luke before his conviction, but seeing him locked up brought home to her once more the enormity of his case. "He is just a laddie sitting there. He absolutely, categorically says he did not do it and I have never seen anything in him to suggest he did. Not a smidgeon of doubt that he is innocent.

"He is your normal, antsy, in-your-face teenager. Did he do it? I believe there were a couple of other people with more ability and opportunity, with more evidence pointing in that direction than in Luke's.

"To me, it's clear they have the wrong guy."

• No Smoke: The Shocking Truth About British Justice, by Sandra Lean is published by Diggory Press, Exposure Publishing, priced £11.99. It is available to order on www.amazon.co.uk

Recommended Reading
Truth in Justice