Wales

Innocence Project: Carer cleared of sex assault 'treated like monster'

Gareth Jones
Image caption "I've lost almost 11 years of my life, I'm not going to get that back," says Gareth Jones

When Gareth Jones was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit, he told his little niece that he was going away to work with Santa Claus.

Through his three and a half years behind bars he kept this story going, telling her he was at an airport waiting to fly to Lapland while speaking to her from the prison phone.

"I feel sick that I've lied to her…when I was away she kept asking, 'when are you coming back?'," said Gareth.

"I'm thinking, I can't explain to a five year old kid that I'm in prison, so I just lied and lied."

Gareth was 22 when he was convicted and imprisoned for sexually assaulting an elderly woman with dementia while he was working at a care home near Brecon.

Gareth, who has learning difficulties, said he was depicted at the time "as a monster", who had carried out a "vicious and sadistic attack" on a vulnerable elderly woman.

Now Gareth and his family have had the best Christmas present they could have wished for.

His conviction has been quashed by the Court of Appeal, thanks to a team of Cardiff law students who started working to clear his name back in 2012.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At his trial the jury heard how the woman lost about a litre of blood - but no DNA evidence was found on Gareth or his unwashed clothes

While it has been years since he left prison, Gareth has been far from a free man.

More than a decade later the guilty verdict, and being on the Sex Offenders' Register, has made it hard for him to do simple things, like see his family, travel, get a job, and rebuild his life in the close-knit community of Llandovery, where he now lives.

"I appreciate those close friends I was in school with, who believed I was innocent," said Gareth, now 33.

"But it's taken a while for this town to believe my side of the story because I've been beaten up, I've been jumped, I've been called a granny rapist, a paedophile, a nonce.

"I just bite my lip and say 'you believe what you want to believe - I know that I'm innocent at the end of the day'."

This belief has kept him going ever since his life changed when he helped a 77-year-old dementia patient to bed at the nursing home where he had worked for two years.

Gareth, from Trecastle, was initially employed as a kitchen porter, but with the manager's blessing he "swapped" jobs with a care assistant who fancied a change of role - an action later condemned by the judge at his trial as inappropriate and "astonishing".

It was when he was changing the patient's incontinence pad he realised she was bleeding heavily, and says he pressed an emergency call button for help.

When colleagues arrived he left the room, as he could not stand the sight of blood, but later accompanied the woman to hospital, before returning to the home and offering to speak to police.

But it was not until he was preparing to leave for work the following evening, that the police arrived at his home.

'I'd done nothing wrong'

At their request, he gave them his unwashed uniform from the previous night's shift. He was then arrested for sexual assault.

"That's when my life just crumbled. I felt like my heart had just been ripped out of me," he said.

"I was shocked, all over the place…I'd done nothing wrong."

After 28 hours of questioning, Gareth was charged and was remanded before standing trial at Cardiff Crown Court in July 2008.

He denied the allegations, but was found guilty of engaging in sexual activity with a patient with a mental disorder.

Image caption Gareth now hopes to be able to travel

Gareth, who was diagnosed as a child with a learning difficulty which impairs his understanding, found the trial incomprehensible.

"I couldn't understand most of what they were going on about," he said, "I kept asking the security guard what was happening but he kept telling me to shush".

"I thought my solicitor and barrister, they've been in court before, they know what they're doing, I'll just listen to them."

After less than three hours of deliberation, he was found guilty by the jury.

"I just broke down, crying and shaking," he said. "I remember my dad kicking off when the security people were taking me down.

"I went to try and give him a hug and say goodbye, but I didn't get the chance because the guard yanked me away."

Image caption How BBC Wales News covered Gareth's conviction in 2008

Gareth - who had no previous convictions - was sentenced to nine years in prison, but this was reduced on appeal to seven years after a judge condemned as it as "manifestly excessive".

He served three and a half years at Usk Prison, before being released on licence in January 2012.

"There were a lot of sex offenders and some lifers in there, and I thought right, this is my new home now," said Gareth.

"I know you hear it all the time in prison, but I just kept on telling (the other inmates), I've done nothing wrong, I'm innocent.

"There's no point kicking and screaming, until you leave those prison gates: then you can fight it…and that's what I did."

Image caption The law students worked for six years to try and overturn Gareth's conviction

Gareth contemplated suicide - but then the Cardiff University Innocence Project took up his case.

A hearing at the Court of Appeal in London in November marked the culmination of six years of work by students to uncover grounds to challenge his conviction.

It is the second time the project, which brings law students together with experts to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice alongside their studies, has cleared a man's name.

They are the only university-based innocence project in the UK to achieve such a result.

The group made history in 2014 when former gang member Dwaine George - jailed for life in 2002 after teenager Daniel Dale was shot dead in Manchester - was cleared of murder.

If not for the determination of his carer Paula Morgan, the law students who have worked on the project would most likely never have heard of Gareth.

Image caption Paula Morgan, who lives with Gareth, said she could not believe his case had ever gone to trial as there was no evidence

Paula has known Gareth since he was a child. She never doubted his innocence and was delighted when the students took on his case.

"It took months of searching before I came across them... it was amazing because I'd tried several barristers and organisations but unless you have money there's no justice," she said.

"It's gratifying that there are people out there who care about justice; they're going to go into their professional lives with that knowledge, in a better place to help people like Gareth who can't afford legal representation."

His appeal team argued the medical evidence at his trial was weak, as the elderly patient could have been injured another way, and there was no forensic evidence found on Gareth or the unwashed uniform he handed to the police.

They also suggested he was not given the right support for someone with his learning difficulty, which hampered his understanding of the trial.

Gareth describes the Innocence Project team as "like a second family" and Paula as like a "second mum", adding, "I owe my life to them, basically".

Now that his name has been cleared he will be removed from the Sex Offenders' Register and he now hopes to get on with his life.

"I've lost almost 11 years of my life, I'm not going to get that back," he said.

"But I want to go back out and work, earn a living, a decent minimum wage," he said.

"I'd like to go to Canada, go fishing there with my father and some friends - things like that, go travelling, spend time with my nieces and nephew without needing the police's permission first... move on and do things I want to do without asking the police's permission, following their rules.

"It's a new life, a new chapter."

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