Thursday 26 May 2011

Radio Silence

It's been more than eight weeks since I last blogged and this is only my fourth entry since January. The reason is that I've thrown myself into my work of late - albeit a different type of work to what many of you are familiar with.

For the last five months I've been spending, on average, between three and five days per week at my local courthouse. During this time I've witnessed pretty much every stage of the legal process - arraignments, trials, sentences, appeals and more. The trials I've sat through have encompassed everything from rape to child molestation, domestic violence to perverting the course of justice, indecent exposure to actual bodily harm.

The idea came to me during dinner with a friend who is ensconced in his exams to become a barrister. As part of his course he'd spent a period of time shadowing a judge at the local courthouse and was telling me about the interesting cases he'd witnessed.

It occurred to me that the courthouse was potentially an untapped source of local and national news stories; who knew what was going on inside that building? I certainly wasn't reading anything about any of the cases my friend had observed in either the local or the national press. I decided that if nobody else was going to write about them, I'd give it a shot.

Often fascinating and occasionally disturbing, the past five months have been revelatory, to say the least. I've embarked on an exploration not only of the court system and its workings but also the courts' relationship with the media and, sadly, the media's failings which it comes to reporting on our justice system.

I've seen prosecutors force defendants to stand trial on the flimsiest of evidence and not be held to account for their arrogance. I've seen judges let off paedophiles with minor sentences when their offences could easily have merited several years behind bars.

I've seen one person convicted of a crime which I saw no evidence that they'd committed. I also witnessed 'churnalism' in action when a news agency journalist showed up for twenty minutes of a three week trial and then had their story circulated internationally.

The first trial I sat through was a fascinating introduction. A local man stood accused of domestic violence resulting in actual bodily harm to his then pregnant girlfriend. Giving evidence for the prosecution, the claimant sobbed repeatedly as she claimed that the defendant had attacked her and attempted to kill her unborn baby. But as she underwent cross-examination it became clear that her claims just didn't stack up.

Photographs of her injuries didn't tally with her description of the alleged assault. She claimed to have had her head smashed repeatedly against a wall and a door, as well as receiving numerous blows to the head and face from the defendant's fists. She even said that the defendant had bitten her hard on the cheek - but police photographs showed only two or three small marks on her face; no large bruises, no cuts and no bite marks.

Her version of events changed repeatedly between her police interview, a deposition she gave in order to prevent the defendant from visiting his child and then her courtroom testimony during his trial. On the stand she seemed to strategically omit certain claims she'd earlier made to police, which she knew were unsupported by any evidence.

These included a claim that the defendant had torn her nipple during the alleged assault and her shirt had been 'covered in blood'. The nipple injury was neither noted nor photographed by police and the bloodied shirt was nowhere to be found, even though she'd gone to the police within hours of the attack having supposedly taken place.

Her allegations were further undermined when a police officer took the stand and testified that the defendant had been helpful in his police interview and his story, unlike the claimant's, had remained consistent. He had not only waved his right to remain silent but also his right to a lawyer, telling police he'd done nothing wrong so he didn't need one. He even volunteered his mobile phone to officers for analysis and police found that the confused text messages he'd sent the claimant tallied with his claim that he didn't know why she'd disappeared with all her stuff that morning.

Significantly, the police officer noted upon the defendant's arrest, less than 24 hours after the alleged incident, that he had no cuts, bruises or markings to his fists or any other part of his body.

Two defence witnesses testified that the claimant had a history of self-harming and could have self-inflicted the handful of injuries she actually exhibited when she contacted police. Both testified that the claimant had told them she'd previously spent time in the Priory Clinic receiving treatment for drugs, alcohol and self-harm issues.

Attempts to obtain the claimant's Priory records were derailed when the clinic informed police that they'd recently switched to a new computer filing system and couldn't look far back enough to check whether she'd been a patient before the alleged attack. It emerged, though, that she had been treated for self-harm issues at the Priory after the alleged incident.

Further doubt was shed on the claimant's version of events when a defence witness testified that she'd seen the claimant on the morning after the alleged attack but before she went to police. The witness testified that the claimant's hair had been tied back that morning and she hadn't displayed any visible injuries.

The defendant's belief, he said on the stand, was that his girlfriend had decided that she didn't want to be in a relationship with him anymore but knew that the child would ensure his continued presence in her life. Her solution, he posited, was to fabricate the assault because it allowed her to obtain a court order preventing him from seeing his child and therefore from seeing her. In the months since she'd left, his child had been born and he had no idea what it was called or even what sex it was or whether it was healthy.

A jury of six men and six women took roughly one hour to acquit the defendant on the third day of his trial - but he was less concerned with the verdict than he was with the health of his 80-year-old grandmother, who was in hospital after crashing her car that morning on her way to court to support him; a journey she'd never have embarked on if the borderline deranged prosecution hadn't gone forward in the first place.

I was relieved to see the defendant acquitted because the doubt in that case was beyond reasonable. At the very least, the claimant appeared to have fabricated aspects of the alleged assault but some evidence, such as the defendant's lack of injuries, strongly suggested that the incident was simply the product of her imagination.

It could easily have gone the other way, though. Some crimes - particularly crimes against women and children - are emotive. You have only to mention them and the jury is already horrified. All it takes is a good prosecutor (or a bad defender) or even for the jury to simply look the defendant up and down and decide that he looks like the type - and things can go awry.

During my first few weeks at the courthouse I realised that I was, generally, the only journalist in the building. If I hadn't been sitting in that courtroom and the verdict had gone the other way, nobody would have known that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Moreover, there are five courtrooms at my local courthouse so for every trial I watched, up to four more were potentially going ahead with nobody present to keep an eye on proceedings.

My next trial showed me that even when journalists do show up to watch a trial, they're not necessarily fulfilling their role properly. The defendant was Emma Smiter, a former Police Community Support Officer who stood accused of leaking sensitive information, including the name of a sex assault victim, to a journalist and then perverting the course of justice.

Smiter's first trial for misconduct in a public office had begun in 2010 but was disbanded after documents she produced as part of her defence - namely two blogs which she claimed were the source of her information, as opposed to police computers - were found to have been faked.

A subsequent investigation found that the blogs had been created just days before her trial began but were backdated to the time of the leaks, and that they'd been created on a computer in Smiter's home under a user profile called 'Emma'. She was charged with perverting the course of justice and her trial was rescheduled for late February 2011. She was convicted on March 16th and sentenced in April to twelve months in jail, of which she will serve six.

I sat in the courtroom for almost the entirety of that trial, missing only the first day or two because I was watching another case down the corridor. For the overwhelming majority of the trial, I was the only journalist in the courtroom.

I was the only journalist to sit through Smiter's testimony from beginning to end. I was the only journalist to witness the key testimony of her father, a senior police officer. I was the only journalist to sit through the closing speeches and the judge's summing up. But despite having sat through more of the trial than any other journalist and despite the national interest in the trial, I couldn't sell a story on it. Why? Because I was scooped by a news agency who scarcely attended any of the proceedings.

The news agency was present for perhaps three days out of the three week trial, covering the opening of the prosecution case and the opening of the defence case but none of the evidence. By the time the verdict was handed down on March 16th the news agency hadn't been on the scene for roughly a week. However, when the case was called for verdict, a journalist from the organisation - who hadn't attended a single other day of the trial - appeared in the courtroom just for the twenty-minute verdict reading. On the way out of the courtroom, she stopped me and asked, "Sorry - do you know what the charges are in this case?"

Despite the fact that this journalist had witnessed a grand total of twenty minutes of Emma Smiter's three week trial and didn't even know what charges Smiter had been convicted on, her copy was syndicated internationally. Meanwhile I, having witnessed the trial almost from beginning to end, couldn't sell a story. Here's why.

Newspapers pay subscription to news agencies or 'wires', whose copy arrives in the newsroom electronically and is technically already bought and paid for, whether they choose to use it or not. In an era of falling circulations, downsizing and dwindling freelance budgets some newspapers, when confronted with a choice between detailed freelance copy or superficial wire copy, will choose the wire copy for budgetary reasons. Why buy a freelancer's version of the story when you've already paid for the wire copy?

The wire copy didn't do the trial justice. The case was fascinating and the news agency didn't have even 10% of the information I had. I even had an exclusive post-trial briefing with the head of Hertfordshire Constabulary's Anti-Corruption Department. None of it got published.

In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies discusses in detail how freelance reporters have suffered as a direct consequence of the increasing corporate ownership of newspapers. The knock-on effect has been that the quality of journalism has suffered, particularly the coverage of Britain's court network.

Just twenty years ago, most courthouses in the country would have had a reporter in them most days filing copy with news agencies and newspapers. Now entire regions are covered by just one or two freelancers dividing their time between dozens of courthouses.

This is alarming. It is absolutely vital that our courts operate openly and transparently. That's why members of the public can walk in off of the street and sit in on almost any trial in any courthouse in the country. Scrutiny is supposed to keep prosecutors and judges in check but with nobody documenting what's going on inside our courthouses, innocent people could be convicted on a daily basis and we'd never know anything about it.

In the past few months I've seen prosecutors pursue cases which were flimsy to the point of being farcical. Prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to just pursue anybody they like by virtue of their status. Every person is innocent until proven guilty but I've seen prosecutors put people on trial with literally no compelling evidence of their guilt - and in one of those trials, they won (more on that shortly).

I've seen judges get away with some pretty bizarre behavior too. On two occasions I've had stories published in national newspapers about judges letting off child sex offenders with ridiculously light sentences.

A teacher who downloaded child porn onto a school laptop and then ferried it between school and home got off without even an hour's community service, despite a previous judge recommending custody. Another man with almost 5million child porn images, who described collecting the pictures as his 'hobby', was eligible for more than five years in prison but was sentenced to just thirty months, of which he will serve only fifteen. That story made front page of the local paper.

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By far the most disturbing experience thus far, though, has been the case of Terence Ruddigan. Mr Ruddigan was 21 years old when a jury at my local courthouse convicted him of seriously assaulting a doorman at a local bar. I believe Mr Ruddigan's conviction was a miscarriage of justice. I sat through his trial from beginning to end and didn't see the prosecutor offer up one piece of evidence or one reliable witness proving Mr Ruddigan's guilt.

Police failed to conduct vital forensic analysis which could have cleared Ruddigan, but the necessary tests were never carried out and no explanation was offered as to why. On grounds of 'hearsay', prosecutors were allowed to cover up evidence in a police officer's statement that a witness had told police Ruddigan wasn't responsible for the altercation, but police failed to take the witness's details or follow up that lead. The jurors never got to hear about that.

The only witnesses who fingered Ruddigan as the attacker all gave completely contradictory versions of events. The only 'eyewitness' whose testimony stood up to scrutiny was the victim, who never saw his attacker.

One witness claimed to have had a conversation with Mr Ruddigan while he was locked in the back of a police car with the window rolled up - a nonsensical claim which Ruddigan legitimately blasted as untrue. Another witness said he had absolutely no recollection of ever attending the identity parade and picking out Ruddigan as the culprit - a bizarre claim that nobody in the court had ever heard from any witness in any previous trial.

The identification evidence itself was tainted. The ID parade was held a full three months after the attack happened and events in the interim seriously called into question its validity. Just days after the assault - before Ruddigan had even been charged with a crime - police attached his mugshot to a 'Behave Or Be Banned' poster and circulated it to all local bars - including the scene of the crime. At that bar, staff were required to observe the poster before work every day and memorise the faces so they knew who to pay attention to during opening hours.

In other words, before attending the ID parade the eyewitnesses spent several minutes every day for three months staring at Mr Ruddigan's face and memorising it as that of a troublemaker. When they eventually attended the ID parade - which was based on pictures rather than a line-up - the mugshot they saw was the same mugshot that appeared on the poster.

Ruddigan took a further blow when it turned out that his previous solicitors had omitted vital information from his defence case statement, which made it appear that he was making up his defence on the spot. It was later shown via legal documents that Ruddigan's testimony had indeed been consistent and the fault was that of his solicitors, but by that time he'd already taken a beating from the prosecutor during cross-examination.

Outside court Ruddigan also told me that his previous solicitor had obtained and showed him CCTV of another person fleeing the bar after the attack, but he had no idea where it was now that he'd hired new counsel.

A predominantly middle-aged/elderly jury took several hours to convict 21-year-old Ruddigan of smashing a glass into the head of the doorman. The conviction was, in my opinion, unjust. Ruddigan was convicted in the absence of any CCTV or physical evidence connecting him to the crime and therefore solely on the highly questionable testimony of several bar staff members whose evidence was at best contradictory and at worst outlandish.

Miss Recorder Hudson, who presided over Ruddigan's trial, seemed aware that the prosecution was a flimsy one. The usual sentence for similar assaults tends to be around eighteen months in prison but when it came to sentencing Terence Ruddigan on April 5th 2011, Hudson commended his 'dignified' manner and gave him a suspended sentence and a community service order.

Nonetheless, this conviction will remain on Mr Ruddigan's police record for life. Moreover, for the next eight years he will be forced to disclose this conviction to prospective employers, which could severely impede his job prospects. But at least Terence Ruddigan was lucky enough to be sentenced by his trial judge. Another judge, not knowing the details of the case, might easily have sent him to jail.

How many Terence Ruddigans passed through my local courthouse before I started attending? How many pass through right under my nose every week while I'm sitting down the corridor in another courtroom? How many pass through our unwatched court system every week because corporate ownership and shrinking circulations are chaining newspaper reporters to their desks and forcing hardworking freelancers out of the industry? How many every year?

It's a genuinely troubling question and one which will hang in the air until corporate newspaper owners see fit to begin reinvesting in good journalism and unshackling reporters from their desks so they can venture out into the world and start fulfilling their most vital function - scrutiny. In a world where prosecutors are publicly embarrassed for pursuing pathetic prosecutions, we'll see a lot less of them.