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.
Articled Clerks always get the worst jobs in the office. On my first day in the office amongst the files I was given was one very thick bundle of papers. It contained correspondence going back for about six years. Our clients owned a bungalow on the main road east out of Cleveleys, a small seaside town close to Blackpool Lancashire. The land had originally been farm land but strip development had taken place. The farmer who had sold off the plots of land had retained a strip wide enough for his farm machinery to get into his fields. But that had been many years before and his tractor was now too wide to get along the track. He maintained the owners of the bungalows on each side had planted hedges on his land which had matured and were now impeding his access.
Our clients disputed this and argued that the hedges were inside the boundaries. Among the papers were copies of the plans from their conveyance. Land in east Lancashire was not registered with the Land Registry at the time. I looked carefully at the plans but they were of very little assistance. They were endorsed with the phrase, ‘This plan is for the purposes of identification only and not of delineation.’ That meant they were not to scale, and anyway the thick red pencil line would have made it difficult to measure with any accuracy.
I dreaded telephone calls from our clients, made slightly worse because the wife’s voice was that of a tenor’s and I couldn’t tell which of them I was speaking too. Fortunately, the solicitor for the farmer thought the whole thing was hilarious and, in his view, incapable of solution. ‘My client will just bulldoze his way through. They’ll want to sue for the damage to their hedge and you’ll tell them that is not a good idea. Then it will all die down until the next time. Just put the file to the bottom of the pile and tell them you’re working on it.’
I wasn’t too happy with that. I wanted to make a good impression with my principal and with the clients, although I thought the farmer’s solicitor was probably right so, despite my misgivings, I took his advice. My salvation came in the form of Trevor, a rather chubby young man, who was the new articled clerk.
He had already been given a few files to work on when he came into my room to see if I needed any help. ‘Well, there is this,’ I said, handing him the dog eared bundle.
A couple of weeks later he came into the office looking very smug. ‘I’ve solved that boundary dispute,’ he said. ‘I went round, got the farmer there, together with our clients, and we pegged out the boundary.’
It was only a couple of days later I was driving along the road and as I passed our clients bungalow, I noticed a pile of white pegs dumped on the grass verge.
Back in the office, I told Trevor, not to bother with the bill and to put the file at the bottom of the pile.
What happens when one of the jury decides to investigate issues in a trial? I was defending a man charged with importing a Class A drug, namely cocaine. The defendant whose name was ‘Gray’ had arrived in the UK from Jamaica via Amsterdam. The car that collected him from Gatwick was followed through the streets of south London by detectives in an unmarked police car. They claimed a package had been thrown from the nearside front window of the car and they had radioed for assistance before stopping the vehicle. The occupants were asked to get out and my client ran off. He didn’t get very far before he was arrested and searched. Nothing incriminating was found on him nor in the vehicle.
A search began to find the item thrown from the car. There was some difficulty in locating anything that fitted the description of the item. My client disputed he had thrown anything away although he said he might have dropped the packaging of some food out of the passenger window. Not surprisingly the police found plenty of that. After a thorough search of the area, a young police officer found a small parcel on the pavement of a nearby road. The difficulty for the prosecution was that the parcel was not found on the route the car had taken, nor close to where my client had run. In his defence, I relied on a set of plans of the area and cross examined the detectives as to which streets the car had been driven along and which ones my client had run along. No police officer was able to say they had seen anything dropped by the defendant as he ran away.
When the officer who had found the package was called he gave the name of the street in which he had found the package and he identified it on the plans. He relied for his evidence on notes he had made as soon as he returned to the police station, as he was entitled to do. I got him to mark the map and asked the jury to do the same on their copies. His explanation for the package not being in the road the defendant had run along was that he must have thrown it over the garden walls.
The next day one of the jurors handed a note for the Judge to the usher. He had been to look at the scene and he judged it was impossible to throw anything from one street to the other. The Judge was very annoyed because the only evidence a jury can take into account is that which they have heard in court. He had two options. The first was to abort the trial and start again with a different jury, or allow all the jury the opportunity to look at the location. He chose the latter. We all had to wait until the afternoon before a coach could be arranged to take the jury and a car to take the Judge. Counsel and the police officer had to make their own way there. My recollection is that I walked and still arrived before the coach. When the young police officer saw the street he had named, his mouth fell open as he realised he had made a terrible mistake. The Judge was furious.
Had the defendant been in possession of the drugs or was it a plant by the police? The jury came to the conclusion they couldn’t be sure of the defendant’s guilt and acquitted him. I’m sure that police officer would never make the same mistake again.
There was another feature of the case that makes it stick in my memory. ‘Gray’ was a professional musician and claimed to have played with Bob Marley.
At the start of the trial, the QC representing the older man and the QC leading me for the younger one made applications to sever the trial. The Judge was not having that. In some ways it was less of a disadvantage to us than it was for the co-defendant, because if his counter allegation of blackmail succeeded it was unlikely the jury would convict our client. What emerged during the trial was that the young woman had gone home and told her family what had happened, her father and brother had then gone to the Hotel and confronted the two men, threatened them and demanded a very large sum of money, my recollection is something in the region of £25000 with the promise the allegation of rape would not be reported to the police. The family members just happened to all have criminal convictions for armed robberies and a previous for extortion, which lent some credibility to the older man’s story.
Some payment was made and again the defence for the older man could prove that on the day the family members had visited the Hotel and gone up to the suite, a sum of money was drawn on cash from the elder man’s bank account. He said he told the girl’s family he needed time to raise the rest of the cash.
One of the facts that may have supported that was the delay of a few days before the rape was reported to the police. From the prosecution point of view it meant that there was no forensic medical evidence to support the allegation. For example blood samples did not reveal the presence of any drugs. The interval between the offence and it being reported allowed the defence to argue the delay was to see if they would get the rest of the money they had demanded. Instead of trying to raise the extra sum the elder defendant left the Hotel and was arrested at Heathrow on his way back to the Middle East. My client had no such opportunity to escape and was arrested the next day. During interviews the older man chose not to reply to any questions he was asked by the investigating officers. My client would have done better to do the same, but he chose to answer questions insisting the sexual intercourse was consensual.
The trial lurched from problem to problem, as the evidence was given before the jury. The young woman maintained they had both raped her. Her father and brother both said they had been to see the two men; they said with the intention of a revenge attack but then thought better of it. The elder man’s reluctance to say anything about his unsavoury business didn’t help anyone. The two defence Silks were continually arguing and attacking each other which allowed the female Silk prosecuting to have a field day. The favourite phrase was ‘It’s like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back.’ Not surprisingly both men were convicted and were sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Did the court hear the truth and nothing but the truth. I don’t think they did. I believe there was more to this, than any of the parties were prepared to admit. I know what I think, but has anyone else any thoughts on this case.