Crime

'I came to terms with the reality of dying in prison'

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Henry Keogh spent 21 years behind bars for the murder of his fiancée. But it was a crime he never committed. He reveals what prison was really like.

Video above: In a two part special Insight finds out what it's like to be convicted of a crime and later cleared. Watch part one, and two on SBS On Demand.

My 20-year nightmare began in March 1994. I returned home to find my fiance, Anna-Jane Cheney, slumped unconscious in the bath at our Adelaide home.

All my and the paramedic’s efforts to revive Anna failed.

To make an awful situation worse, what followed was a flawed trial, my conviction and a life sentence for murder with a minimum of 25 years before I could even apply for parole.

Nothing prepares you for the challenges and hazards of prison life even if you’re guilty, let alone innocent.

In a totally alien world, I felt alone, at risk and worst of all powerless.

I soon learned there were two sets of rules: the official Prison Rules and the inmates’ unwritten ones.

It was the unwritten rules that would determine how well or how long I survived.

Prison life meant enduring absurdly inconsistent rules, mind-numbing boredom, threats, assaults, riots and solitary confinement for weeks at a time.

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But all that paled against the frustrations of trying to mount appeals from behind bars.

Frustration turned to despair when I realised I was not in a legal battle but a political one.

With all appeals denied and multiple petitions to the Governor refused, my despair turned to depression and a five-year struggle against the temptation to end it all.

I only gained some peace when I came to terms with and accepted the reality of dying in prison.

Meanwhile, on the outside, a disparate group of individuals were working for my release. Legal academics, scientists, journalists, numerous lawyers, politicians and amateur investigators were motivated by their outrage at such an obvious miscarriage of justice.

Even they underestimated the battle we faced.

Even so they persisted, often at personal and professional cost. But for the sustained efforts of such a brave and committed group of people, I would still be in prison — or dead.

They pushed for, and achieved the seemingly impossible. They were instrumental in having a 100-year-old law changed.

Adjusting to life beyond prison walls was nothing in comparison to all that preceded it, including the threat of another trial.

The new law allowed me to bypass the politically controlled doomed-to-fail petition process.

I could now bring my case and the critical fresh evidence directly before the court.

In a unanimous decision by the Court of Appeal, my conviction was overturned.

I was released in December 2014. But any joy or celebration was soon cut short — I was re-arraigned.

Despite being unjustly incarcerated for almost 21 years, I now faced the threat of a third trial! My family, supporters and I were gutted. For the next 11 months, I was swamped by wave after wave of emotions.

At first, I was simply appalled, incredulous and then outraged. I had shed my naive belief in the criminal justice system long ago.

I found the closer the trial loomed, the more my misgivings gave way to anxiety and dread. My distrust of the system (and especially the string-pullers behind the scenes) was so intense it became impossible to sustain confidence about the outcome. My faith had been shaken to its core.

In November 2015, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, made a formal public statement saying he was dropping the charges.

He cited reasons of poor health with his chief witness.

Once again, robbed of elation or joy, all that remained was relief that the ordeal was finally over.

Adjusting to life beyond prison walls was nothing in comparison to all that preceded it, including the threat of another trial.

My much-needed healing was made easier, almost seamless by the love and assistance of family, friends and supporters.

It was helped further by the countless acts of grace, generosity and acceptance from random strangers and wellwishers alike.

My profound thanks to each and every one of them.

Source SBS Insight

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