The horse fair at Appleby in Cumbria is a well known meeting place for Romany families, but they also congregate in other places throughout the country. Some of our most famous race courses are near to sites where Romany families met and showed off their horses and ponies. Many have a continuing interest in horses even if their homes are moved by a different sort of horse-power, and even if their children don’t always go to school they learn to ride as soon as they can sit on a pony.
One of my case some years ago was defending a Romany man, called Smith, on a charge of assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and possession of a shotgun without a licence. The incident or should I say series of incidents took place at a beach in East Anglia which was one of those meeting places like Appleby. There was a long beach on which horses could be raced and, at night, they blocked off a straight road for trotting competitions.
Horses frequently changed hands at these events and it was the purchase of a pony for his son that lead to the fight for which Smith was now before the court. He had bought a pony from another gypsy who had disguised the animal by painting its distinguishing features, a white star on its head and four white socks, the same colour as its body. When the paint wore off and Smith realised the horse was stolen he demanded his money back. The horse thief refused and there was a fight as well as threats exchanged. The abuse mounted until they had a serious fight in which the horse thief was given a good hiding by Smith. Matters might have stayed there – Romany families are reluctant to involve the police in their affairs- but Smith was still demanding the return of his money. This time, he threatened to use a shotgun on the thief.
The seller of the pony must have taken fright because he called the police anonymously informing them that Smith had an unlicensed shotgun. The police went to his caravan and spoke to his wife who worked as a fortune teller. Smith in the meantime went missing taking his guns with him. After a few days, he returned home, but he left the guns buried in the sand. When the police came again he denied having any weapons, but it didn’t take the police long to find their hiding place, and he was charged with possession of them and of the earlier assault. He pleaded not guilty to the charges saying the guns were not his and as for the assault he was acting in self defence. I think he felt the complainant had only got his just desserts.
The case was tried at Norwich Crown Court, which at that time was in a very old building with no real facilities. I was not optimistic that he would be acquitted, Smith had been a prize fighter at gypsy fairs and the horse thief for all his dishonesty, looked an unlikely opponent. The guns were identified as having been ones Smith had bought from a licensed dealer only months before. However the jury went out and to my surprise were still considering their verdict at the lunch adjournment. The only place to get something to eat was an outdoor café rather like the ones taxi drivers use. I was standing waiting for my coffee and sandwich with my instructing solicitor and behind us was prosecuting counsel, when Mrs Smith walked up to us and asked us what would happen. Before I could explain, counsel for the Crown said, ‘Haven’t you brought your crystal ball, then you could tell us.’
Walt was an interesting character, half American and half German. He had two older sisters. Their father was a GI serving in Germany. Walt told me the American Army were against marriages between natives and members of the armed forces. Nor were they interested in assisting immigration by families any soldiers had established in Germany. His father was sent back to the USA leaving his mother to bring up the three children alone in a war torn country.
His father kept in touch with the family but after a few years he wrote to say he had married an American woman, (shades of Pinkerton) and he wanted the children to come and live with him so they could have a better life. His mother reluctantly agreed, believing the USA to be some kind of promised land. The two girls went first and Walt joined them when he was seven. To his horror, he found himself taken to a wooden shack in the back woods of Mississippi, where he and his sisters were treated as little more than slaves. Their father’s wife instead of being a mother to them forced them to do a lot of the housework. There was no electricity, no running water and Walt’s job was to chop what seemed an endless supply of timber. They were forbidden to speak German together and were beaten when They were not given any education at all.
One day when he was about nine years old Walt decided to run away. He was fortunate in making it to the highroad where he was picked up by the local sheriff. The equivalent of our local authority was informed. The two girls were taken from their father and all three were placed in the care of the Local Authority. However the three siblings could not be kept together and they were adopted by different families. Walt ended up in Florida living with a quite wealthy couple who had no children. They encouraged him to speak German and he went to university. When they died he inherited their wealth. He said there was not an enormous amount but enough for him to come and live in the UK, buy a modest flat in London without having to find work. He did describe himself as a writer and poet.
After he moved to the UK, he began to search for his mother and his sisters and was able to locate his mother just before she died. His father he never wanted to see again. Just before the incident he had found his sisters and they had an emotional reunion in the States with the sheriff who rescued them. He showed me newspaper cuttings about their meeting.
The trial in the Crown Court took four days. We had sought discovery and had obtained the papers about the murder investigation which illustrated how close local police officers had become to the family. The Judge, probably on the basis that it could do no harm let the evidence about that relationship be given to the Court. Similarly, I was allowed to ask the sergeant about her connection with the family and to ask her about her bias in favour of the fish shop owner.
Walt gave evidence and admitted the threatening words in the witness box, but he was acquitted of the common assault charge. He wasn’t happy about that. I advised him he had no grounds to take the matter to the Court of Appeal and I thought he had accepted that. Then I started to get letters from him asking to see the notes I had taken at the hearing and a copy of my closing speech. I declined and he reported me to the Bar Council. Something every barrister dreads. When I explained the reasons for not letting him have my notes the Bar Council dismissed his complaint. Anyway, my writing was so bad I couldn’t read the notes of my speech, so I doubt they would have given him an assistance.
In the calendar of offences, threatening behaviour comes fairly near the bottom, although it can have disastrous consequences. It is an offence for which there is no right of election to have the case tried by a jury, so most senior barristers are only rarely instructed in such cases. However, I was instructed to represent a defendant who had been convicted of threatening behaviour and a common assault in the Magistrates court and was appealing that decision to the Crown Court, where the court would comprise a Judge and two Magistrates.
The defendant was an American and was in his late forties. I can’t remember his name so I’ll call him Walt. The circumstances of the case did have an unusual twist. Walt had gone to buy fish and chips at a shop near to his home. He had gone on his bicycle intending to return with a meal for him and his girlfriend. He had gone by bicycle and when he went into the shop he propped the bike up against the plate glass window. As he joined the queue, Mike, one of the grown up sons of the owners, who was serving in the shop, asked him to move it. Walt began to argue with Mike and the language became more abusive. The abuse escalated when Walt said Mike’s brother, who had been murdered about eighteen months previously, had probably deserved it.
Mike grabbed hold of the bike and threw it into the road, damaging the front wheel. Walt was very angry and a scuffle started. The police were called and Walt was arrested. At the police station, Walt was interviewed under caution by a woman detective sergeant. He said she was rude, refused to listen to his account of the evening’s events and told him the damage to his cycle was minimal. Furthermore, she had no intention of arresting Mike for an offence of Criminal Damage, nor for any assault on Walt. It transpired later she had been involved in the investigation of the murder of Mike’s brother and, at one stage had been the family liaison officer. Walt’s view was that she was a biased investigator in his case and, he believed, could not envisage the shop owners and their family could lie. He may have been right. Unusually the local police station had conducted the murder inquiry rather than the Murder Squad. I assumed it was because the murderer was known and had recently been released from a secure hospital in the area.
As a way of proving the police were not independent of the fish shop owners family, Walt decided to keep watch on the premises and count the number of times officers arrived and, he said, were given food. There were further incidents but none serious. No one was arrested but Walt was warned not to persist in his surveillance. He didn’t take any notice of the warning and continued often in disguise. He didn’t fool anyone and in the end, an injunction was obtained to keep him away from the shop.
When the case came to trial in the Magistrates Court, Walt was convicted. The evidence he had put together alleging police bias was disallowed. He decided to appeal and it was then I was instructed to represent him in the Crown Court.
It is some months since I posted anything on this blog apart from a few photographs of my trip to Australia. I have been very busy editing my new novel The Fatal Step, with the help of my beta readers. A little way to go yet. I’ve also been working with a designer on the cover of the new book and hope to have a final version ready soon
But I have started more stories from My Life at the Bar, which I will begin posting next week.
Just to keep my readers interested here is a photograph of a Koala Bear taken at a wild life sanctuary in Tasmania.