One of the most frequently asked questions of any lawyer is ‘How do you defend someone you know is guilty?’ The answer is it’s nothing to do with me. I’m just an advocate, only a judge and jury can decide someone is guilty. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. If a client tells me they are guilty, except in very particular circumstances, I could not defend them. If however they insist they are innocent, then no matter how strong the evidence is against them, the advocate’s duty is to put their case to the best of their ability.
Usually, if on the basis of the evidence you have, the case looks overwhelming, I would advise the client to plead guilty to the offence as doing so will probably result in him getting a less severe sentence. Sometimes that can result in the barrister or solicitor getting the sack. Very early on in my career, I learnt to be careful about the amount of pressure I put on a defendant who insisted he was innocent in the face of very convincing evidence.
The client was a juvenile and because of his age, the trial was to take place in the Juvenile Court. At that time, the prosecution, in this case, the Metropolitan Police Solicitors, were under no obligation to serve any of the witness statements. Usually, the police officer would provide a brief summary of the evidence to the lawyers involved. The charge against my client was one of arson. I was told that the fire had been very destructive but there had been no loss of life. The seat of the fire was in a community hall attached to a school and entry had been gained to the premises through the school kitchens, which joined the two buildings and were used by both. Whoever had gone into the hall had used a serving hatch and on the top edge of the glass window was a perfect set of fingerprints. Those fingerprints were my clients. He denied he had ever been in the kitchen. He was lying and the magistrates would have deduced the reason for the lie was to cover his guilt.
He was fifteen years of age and of good character. His parents were clearly caring and supportive. Not always the case with juvenile offenders. Because of the seriousness of the fire, I believed a custodial sentence was inevitable, but if he pleaded guilty he might get and detention centre order rather than be sent to the Crown Court for sentence and the real possibility of being sent for Borstal training. I tried to persuade him that he should admit the offence. He refused. His parents had also tried as had my instructing solicitor. All to no avail.
I started the trial with a heavy heart, convinced I was just going through the motions until the prosecuting lawyer called the forensic expert. Usually in cases of arson the expert gives evidence as to the seat of the fire and the method by which it was started. Typically some sort of accelerant is used petrol, paraffin or alcohol. The expert told the court the fire had started in a plastic ashtray on the bar but did not give evidence of any accelerant being used.
There is a rule of thumb that one never asks a question to which you don’t know the answer. I decided to take the risk.
‘Is it possible the fire started as a result of somebody leaving a lighted cigarette stub in the ashtray?’
‘Certainly. If someone had not stubbed out their cigarette properly, the plastic of the ashtray would melt and then ignite.’
The offence of arson require the prosecution to establish the fire was started deliberately and this they could no longer do. My client was acquitted and I was relieved my persuasion had failed.
Kings Cross in London in 1993 was a well known as a place to buy or sell drugs. In order to clean up the area the police began an operation known as Operation Welwyn. Undercover officers posed as buyers and when they were offered drugs the person selling was arrested and charged with offences under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. They used video cameras in fixed positions and also in vans. Many people were arrested in the course of this operation and it resulted in a number of trials. There is a fine line when undercover officers make such a purchase between encouraging the crime and trapping a defendant, which is illegal, and simply taking advantage of the dealer’s willingness to supply the drugs.
My client, Angela was of mixed race and in her mid-twenties. She was charged with one offence of supplying cocaine in the form of crack. The police officers said they had bought cocaine from her. Angela was filmed meeting the two officers and going to a telephone booth. According to the officers they paid her for drugs and she handed them over when they gave her two twenty pound notes. That transfer of drugs and money was obscured by a large traffic sign pointing the way to Cambridge and The North. There was no question that it was anyone other than the defendant. She was clearly identifiable wearing a denim jacket and her long hair tied up with a brightly coloured ribbon.
Angela was arrested some time later. This was to avoid others being alerted to the ongoing operation. When she was interviewed she denied supplying drugs to the police officer but said she made a telephone call to another person who could have supplied the police woman with cocaine. If that was the truth then she would still have been guilty of the offence but on a different basis, although it raised the issue of entrapment. Legal argument on that point was resolved by the Crown agreeing that the jury could only return a verdict of guilty on the grounds that Angela had sold cocaine to the officers.
When the two police officers gave evidence they said they had spoken to Angela on the street and asked to buy drugs from her. She had suggested the deal took place in the telephone booth and they had followed her but had stood outside while she took the drugs out of her handbag. They had handed her two twenty pound notes in exchange for the crack. The numbers of the notes had been recorded, but none were found in Angela’s possession. The Crown’s explanation was she had spent it between the offence being committed and her arrest.
Although the traffic sign obscured not only the telephone booth but the two officers as well, I could follow their shadows as they crossed the pavement. At no time had they approached the telephone booth, instead, after they had spoken to Angela they had walked towards a pedestrian crossing where they became visible on the film. They were unable to explain their movements when I cross examined them.
The Judge trying the case became so interested that on his way home he drove to Kings Cross to see for himself the location of the traffic sign and the telephone booth. He summed up for an acquittal and Angela was found not guilty.
This story along with others appears in the very slim volume Trials and Errors.
I have just received the proof copy of a slim – anorexic actually – volume of tales from my Life at the Bar. It includes some of my blog posts and some new stories. The front cover shows the colonnades between Inner and Middle Temple built after WW2 when the building on that site, if my recollection is right it was called Fig Court, was destroyed along with Inner Temple Hall by enemy action.
There is also the first chapter of my novel Crucial Evidence.
The book is already available on Amazon without the final proof reading and will be available for your Kindle on 24th October. I hope you enjoy this little book.
The offence of going equipped to commit burglary doesn’t seem to feature in the courts these days, but as an articled clerk I was sent to sit behind Mark Carlisle on just such a case. The two defendants, both male, had been apprehended in one of the lanes in the countryside inland of Blackpool. The evidence against them consisted of observations by the police to whom they were well known and the various objects found inside their car, a grey Vauxhall, I think.
The offence took place on a summer’s evening when an observant police officer had seen the two men, Ken and Norman, driving along a narrow lane that led down towards the River Wyre. He knew it was a dead end, so he radioed for help and an unmarked car arrived. When the Vauxhall emerged from the lane and turned along the main road, the police care followed at a discrete distance. The car then turned down another of the lanes which went towards the River, another dead end. The police stayed on the main road keeping watch. This was repeated a third time, but this time the police followed and as it reached the entrance to a large house set in extensive grounds, they indicated the Vauxhall was to pull over.
Norman and Ken got out of the car and went to meet the officers. As the two policemen, DC Smith and DC McKie, approached Norman, he pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers and began searching through it.
‘Here’s my driving licence and I’ve got insurance as well,’ Norman said, waving the pieces of paper under the DC Smith’s nose.
‘Thanks,’ said the officer, pushing away Norman’s arm. ‘Let’s have a look in the car shall we.’
All four men strode towards the car. ‘What you doing round here?’ DC McKie said. He rolled his r’s and looked straight at Ken, who dropped his gaze.
‘Looking for work. Been told some guy wanted a job on his roof,’ Ken said.
‘What’s this guy’s name then?’ McKie said.
‘Don’t know, just told where he lived.’
By this time they had all reached the vehicle and the two officers opened the boot. Inside was a bag of tools, spanners, screw drivers, a couple of hammers, and laid across the base the dark metal of a crowbar glinted in the low summer sun.
‘Doing a roof were we; with a crowbar.’ McKie wasn’t expecting an answer.
Norman spluttered. ‘Yes, guv. We were going to see this guy about some work.’
‘Where does he live, this bloke you were going to see?’ Smith said, as he opened the front passenger door.
On the floor was a piece of paper torn from a reporter’s notepad, the type anyone can buy in WH Smith’s. ‘We had a map…’ Ken pushed past the officer, leant into the vehicle and picked up the sheet of paper. ‘We’d met this guy in the pub. Said he had a few jobs we could do and he drew this map of where his house was. Here, see.’ He thrust the piece of paper into DC Smith’s hand.
The map had been drawn by an inexpert hand, but it clearly showed a lane of the main Cleveleys to Singleton Road. The drawing showed two or three houses along a twisting lane that led down to towards the River.
DC Smith sucked his teeth as he contemplated whether to arrest the two men. He didn’t believe a word they were saying, but with a good defence lawyer they would probably be acquitted. Was it worth the paperwork involved; whatever they were up to they had been stopped in their tracks.
‘Well not sure…’ he said, but was interrupted by DC McKie who was holding a book in his hand.
‘What’s this. A copy of Who’s Who. Now what would you be wanting with this then?’
They were arrested and charged with going equipped with a crow bar, spanners, various tools and a copy of Who’s Who. Despite Mr Carlisle best endeavours both men were convicted.