Portsmouth '˜Making a Murderer' innocence project working to clear killer Omar Benguit's name
After nearly 14 years in jail a convicted murderer who maintains his innocence has been offered a glimpse of hope.
Omar Benguit, now 43, was locked up when he was arrested for the murder of South Korean language student Jong-Ok Shin in 2002.
After three trials he was finally convicted and jailed for life in 2005. He has lost two attempts at the Court of Appeal to clear his name.
Now an academic at the University of Portsmouth and a team of eight students are working to prove his innocence.
A mix of second and third year students, along with a masters student, spend five hours a week on the project, after 12 hours’ training.
Senior lecturer Marika Henneberg leads the innocence project at the Criminal Justice Clinic.
She has experience in California, having previously worked to clear a convicted murderer.
Wrongful convictions are in the spotlight after the popular Netflix series Making a Murderer charted American Steven Avery’s wrongful jailing for 18 years – only for him to be convicted of murder on his release.
In Portsmouth, Marika and the innocence project have three active cases – including Benguit’s – and two dormant cases.
Benguit has appealed twice, once in 2005 and again in 2014. Marika got involved after the second appeal had been submitted to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
She said: ‘With this line of work quite often you can see there is an issue with the conviction not being safe.
‘But with Omar’s case, as soon as you start looking at it the evidence doesn’t exist.
‘There’s nothing there. Once you start scraping on the surface it just falls apart.
‘The main reason for his conviction was the testimony of the main prosecution witness, who was a drug addict.
‘We have all her statements she gave to the police and a lot of the information provided has already been disproved.’
There is no doubt Benguit’s case is unusual.
Benguit, formerly of Fratton, Portsmouth, was charged with murder and faced trial with another co-defendant who was charged with related offences, and was acquitted. A third man named by a witness never faced trial.
Two juries failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge for Benguit and he was convicted at a third trial.
‘When you read the witness’s statements they are very detailed and they contain all three men,’ Marika adds.
‘So how these three men became one I have no idea.
‘The prosecution had to ask for special permission from the Director of Public Prosecutions to even have a third trial. It is so rare.
‘It’s so unusual, in the first appeal it’s mentioned as they tried to appeal it on that – there’s hardly any precedents.’
Korean language student Jong-Ok Shin was stabbed three times while walking home from a night club.
The 26-year-old was sober, no-one witnessed what happened and the knife was never recovered.
Before she died she told police and medics in poor English her attacker wore a mask and had attacked her from behind.
Benguit was arrested on August 22, 2002, more than a month after the murder on July 12 in Bournemouth.
His first failed appeal in 2005 argued he should not have been put on trial for a third time and some evidence should not have been allowed.
In 2014, his lawyers unsuccessfully argued another murderer, Danillo Restivo, may be responsible, that the main prosecution witness was unreliable and CCTV showed Benguit was not in the area.
They also pointed out the witness appeared on The Jeremy Kyle Show saying she had seen Benguit stab the victim and had seen him with the knife. She did not say this at the trial, the appeal heard.
Marika and her team are looking at how circumstantial evidence was presented.
They are reading through statements in the case file and trying to reach out to witnesses from the trial.
It is work that requires patience and research skills.
And it is fraught with difficulties – the team only have 11 ringbinders of documents from Benguit’s previous barrister, newspaper reports and the appeal hearings texts.
All of the trial transcripts have been destroyed, in accordance with Ministry of Justice policy – something Marika has criticised.
But the ultimate aim is to prove the conviction is unsafe and apply to the Criminal Case Review Commission again for a third appeal.
So far they have found a new leads since getting the papers in November but Marika remains tight-lipped about these. But she says an important aspect is the lack of forensic evidence to back up ‘circumstantial’ evidence.
She said: ‘The other thing with the witness’s story is she talks about how she stopped a car, the three guys got out, they approached the victim, she was stabbed to death and they came back to the car and Omar was all covered in blood. There was absolutely no forensic evidence to tie him to this. There was nothing in the cars.
‘Various bits of clothing and towels were recovered but there was nothing.
‘Apart from her testimony and other people there was literally nothing there.
‘Sometimes the lack of forensic evidence is significant because it contradicts the circumstantial evidence that the prosecution put together. And it clearly does so here.’
In the 2014 appeal, the judges said: ‘Searches and science did not link Benguit to the murder.’
Ivor Ash, 29, is one of the case managers for Benguit.
A third-year criminology and sociology student at the university, he has travelled to prison with Marika to visit Benguit.
‘Just from the beginning you can see there’s been no forensic evidence,’ he said.
‘It was a case that I wouldn’t have thought would happen in this day and age.’
Just from this experience he has secured a job as an appropriate adult working in police stations.
But for Ivor, trawling through documents trying to prove Benguit’s innocence is something he has become passionate about.
He said: ‘This is someone who’s innocent in prison who has been there for more than 10 years now.
‘If we can do anything that we can then we should.
‘It’s kind of his last hope, he’s been let down by all aspects of the criminal justice system.’
Dorset detectives investigated the crime. A spokesman said: ‘Jong-Ok Shin, known as Oki, was a 26-year-old South Korean language student who was making her way home when she was brutally murdered in July 2002 by Omar Benguit in a sudden and unprovoked attack.
‘Her family remain devastated by their loss and the appeal process was a very difficult and traumatic time for them.
‘The case was reviewed by the Criminal Case Review Commission and referred to the Court of Appeal.
‘The appeal was dismissed in April 2014 and this ruling provides absolute clarity that this is both a safe and just conviction.’
On the ground for a second referral, a spokesman for the CCRC said: ‘There has to be something that makes it new, something that sheds new light.’
STUDENTS working on the innocence project are dedicated at the task in hand.
The University of Portsmouth students can start in their second years as volunteers.
Then in their third year they work on the Criminal Justice Clinic for credit toward their degrees.
Daniel Winfield, 20, is a third year criminology and forensics student.
He said: ‘I genuinely enjoy the feeling of being able to help people who potentially are the subjects of miscarriages of justice.
‘The skills and experience I get from it is good.
‘The cases are interesting, there are many different elements to a case.
‘There’s many avenues to look at, I’ll always be constantly doing something.’
A case manager in Omar Benguit’s case, he added: ‘It’s more to do with the issue of just how everything was played out.
‘If you look at the trials, the whole process seemed unfair.
‘I’m hoping to highlight these issues in any way I can.’