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The Wrong Man: 17 Years Behind Bars review – dignified, devastating TV
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The Wrong Man: 17 Years Behind Bars review – dignified, devastating TV

Right from the start, the events that led to Andrew Malkinson’s imprisonment for rape were absurd. It was summer 2003 when police pulled over the motorbike on which the then-37-year-old was riding pillion – the exchange, according to a local reporter, Neal Keeling, was “quite amicable”. Weeks later, those same officers received a description of an attacker from a woman who had been raped. For some strange reason, they recalled their brief encounter with Malkinson and decided he fit the bill. Malkinson was put into a police lineup, then a courtroom, then prison – for 17 years. Truly, though, he was transported into what he calls a “parallel nightmare world”, where he remained until last year, when his conviction was finally overturned.

In The Wrong Man: 17 Years Behind Bars, Malkinson eloquently guides us through his descent into this bizarre hellscape. He willingly attended the police lineup he believed would clear his name, only to be positively identified by the victim. Oddly, two members of the public also claimed to have seen Malkinson near the scene of the crime, which took place on a motorway embankment in Salford in the early hours. He was found guilty by a jury and given a life sentence. He spent his jail time “hypervigilant” against violent attacks – yet he was always hopeful that something would come to light that proved his innocence.

In fact, it did. Mystery male DNA was discovered on the victim’s top. Yet Malkinson’s request to appeal against his conviction was denied. At the same time, he attended parole hearings, having served his minimum sentence. His freedom, however, was contingent on an admission of guilt – but he wasn’t prepared to lie. Even the Parole Board admitted he was “in a catch-22” situation. It is mind-boggling to realise that if Malkinson really had raped somebody, he would have been free to go, but since he hadn’t, he remained in prison.

So far, so bureaucratically tortuous. Yet it turns out his ordeal was even more nefarious than it first appears – and it’s in tracing these later developments that this dignified, devastating documentary really hits its stride. Desperate to help, Malkinson’s ex-girlfriend had contacted Appeal, an organisation that assists wrongfully convicted prisoners. Led by the lawyer Emily Bolton, Appeal looked into Malkinson’s case and found – whoops! – the police had destroyed the victim’s clothing, precluding further DNA testing. Oh, and those two apparently random witnesses? Not only were both repeat offenders – a fact hidden from the jury – but one of them had identified Malkinson in a lineup on two separate dates that he himself had been arrested, says Appeal’s star investigator, James Burley. (This information was only made available after the organisation took the police to court.)

In 2020, Malkinson was released, although we are not told why. There are a few other niggling gaps in the narrative of this documentary that will prompt immediate supplementary Googling by savvy, true-crime-schooled viewers – did he have an alibi, for instance? But what The Wrong Man does that internet search engines never could is provide an enormously affecting account of Malkinson’s post-release, pre-exoneration limbo.

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I wasn’t expecting to sob at the sight of a middle-aged man driving a borrowed Fiat Panda up a dirt track but, as part of Bolton’s attempts to rehabilitate Malkinson after his release, it is an extraordinarily emotional moment. Shortly before this, we witness Malkinson’s first steps out of the prison gates and into a green expanse of empty countryside (this documentary has clearly been years in the making). The Appeal team is there with a crate of his favourite foods; he is given a phone. He has left prison on life licence, still technically a sex offender and, at this point, a “social pariah”, says Bolton. She finds him a flat and decorates it, but once it becomes clear that his time inside has shattered his short-term memory, she puts him up in her idyllic countryside home. It’s hard to know what is more moving: Malkinson’s gut-wrenching attempts to rebuild his life or Bolton’s seemingly limitless generosity and compassion.

Documentaries about miscarriages of justice tend to be designed to make viewers angry. The Wrong Man certainly achieves that, not least because it concludes with the unbelievable news that Malkinson has not received a penny of compensation for his ordeal. Yet the rage such programmes induce is often clouded by an overwhelming sense of impotence in the face of a rotten legal system. This show, however, suggests there is actually something you can do: donate to Appeal, which rescued Malkinson and is helping many others. In a fair and just society, it wouldn’t exist – but, quite patently, we don’t live in one of those.

Source: theguardian.com