Imagine being accused of a murder you didn’t commit and imprisoned for more than 20 years.
This is what happened to Adelaide man Henry Keogh who was convicted in 1995 of killing his fiancé Anna-Jane Cheney and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years jail.
Freed in 2014 after his conviction was quashed, Mr Keogh is dedicating his life to showing others how to free themselves from the various lifelong prisons they may be grappling with whether it be abusive relationships, cyber-bullying, physical and or mental health issues. He also wants to educate others about the many innocent people still languishing in Australian prisons.
Mr Keogh recently spoke with Griffith Law School students undertaking the Innocence Project course, and gave them an insight into his life over the past 20 years.
“Once the legal system gets rolling it doesn’t stop, it’s a juggernaut,’’ he said.
After two trials, the first a hung jury, the second convicting him, he began life as a prisoner.
Crammed into a 5ft x 10ft cell with another inmate for 12 to 18 hours a day, Mr Keogh said he had to quickly learn the difference between official prison rules and unwritten inmates’ rules.
“Because that was a lesson that would determine how well or how long I would survive in prison. I had to stay alert and keep my wits about me,’’ he recalls.
As the days wore on he battled with depression and contemplated suicide – but knowing what that would do to his daughters and the promise he had made to his father stopped him.
After hitting rock bottom he made a decision that would alter the rest of his time in prison.
“I knew that I had to work on my head, my health and my heart,” he said.
I had to control the voice in my head and stop obsessing about the things I had no control over. I started exercising again. I chose to stop hating and I let go of my anger.
“Those three choices gave me true freedom; freedom behind bars.”
He said one of the worst parts of being in jail was the insidious way it became the new normal.
“The process of survival was a disengaging from life, all the daily touchstones you relied upon – family, friends, work, phone – are no longer there.”
Mr Keogh asked the law students to remember when they became lawyers, that prisoners do not have ready access to their solicitor or counsel.
“We have to jockey, even fight (sometimes literally), to use the phone. Every decision you make in jail is an opportunity cost – choosing your lawyer means you miss out on calling your spouse or family.”
He said without the dedicated people working on his case outside, he would most definitely still be in jail.
“Remarkably, not one of my team of helpers knew me prior to my incarceration – they were all moved by what they saw as injustice. Academics, lawyers, scientists, they could see that it could easily be one of them, one of their children, their parents, their partners.
“The work people like you do is critical and invaluable,” he told the students. “Without you there would be many more innocent people languishing in jail.”
Griffith University Innocence Project Director Ms Lynne Weathered met Mr Keogh at a miscarriages of justice conference in South Australia in 2017.
“He very kindly offered to speak to our Innocence Project students, trusting it would highlight to them, the importance of the work they are doing here,’’ she said.
“There is nothing more compelling for those of us doing this type of work than to listen to someone who has experienced the devastating impact of a wrongful conviction.”
Over his 20 years in prison, Mr Keogh had three petitions for mercy rejected, prior to his case being heard under a new appeal provision in South Australia which allows for a second and subsequent appeal if there is fresh and compelling evidence that a substantial miscarriage of justice has occurred.
Under that legislation, Ms Weathered said, Mr Keogh was able to get back into the courts in 2014 and finally have his wrongful conviction corrected.
“His case highlights the importance of this new appeal provision. The Griffith University Innocence Project currently has a submission with the Queensland Attorney-General, highlighting the need for a similar provision to be introduced in Queensland,” she said.
For law students Natasha Lawton and Sophie Gorrick, listening to Mr Keogh’s experience has reaffirmed their desire to help innocent people wrongly imprisoned.
Natasha said she had always been fascinated by cases such as this, and is interested in the judicial process of exoneration.
“What I’ve learnt from the Innocence Project is how long it takes from when new evidence is produced – the process is inevitably slow.”
“It’s rare to have someone wrongly convicted speak to us, and hearing his story has made me more determined to continue my studies in this area,’’ said Sophia, who volunteers with the Innocence Project.
For Mr Keogh, spending time with his wife, family members and just spending time outdoors is a blessing.