Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Trial

Each week I was driven back to the Magistrates’ court in order to be remanded, again, into custody pending trial. This involved the Reception process in reverse, giving me a glimpse of the world that I had left from the squashed confinement of the back seat of a taxi, wedged between two screws. Each time, while having lunch in the local police station, my sister would visit and bring me a bag full of sweets and biscuits to take back to prison. Within three months I was at Crown Court for trial.

The very word, 'trial', carries an intrinsic weight. Being “on trial for murder" is a phrase with gravitas. Trials conjure up visions of Rumpole, of soaring speeches and crafted appeals, the jury being shepherded from one side to the other by the skills of the Prosecution and Defence. Trials summon herd memories of historical tortures, trial by fire, by water, by weights...There is an expectation of an arena where the great forces of the State and society gather to strip away the flesh of the accused, to lay bare the soul and the Truth. Alas...

Another taxi ride but this time the atmosphere was more sombre. Significant events were ahead and the screws sensed the occasion. Whilst sitting in a holding cell beneath the Crown Court, a large man in a gown was steered in to face me. "I am your barrister. You have left me very little to work with, so I think you should go up there and plead guilty. Okay?"

Okay what? He may have been asking me about the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics; what the hell did I know about the law or my legal situation? This was my only meeting with my defender.

There is a widespread misperception about the charge of murder. Common understanding has it that to prove the charge then there must be an intent to kill, premeditation. Even criminal justice professionals make the error. In reality, all that is necessary is that there is intent to cause serious harm, and if death follows then this becomes murder. The intent to cause serious harm can be inferred from the circumstances of the crime, with no conscious intent to kill in the mind of the accused.

The subtleties of the differences between murder and manslaughter were in the mind of the police who took down my confession. Whilst I was being open and honest, when they offered me alternative forms of words I was not inclined to resist. As long as the statement comprised an admission to my killing my friend, I was content. That the precise words would later decide the course of my life, provide a structure for the legal circus, was never in my mind.

In this way, my barrister was presented with a confession that demonstrated an intent to cause serious harm. Thus his defeatist attitude. I never saw him after that initial meeting, just before I was walked up the steep, narrow steps into the dock. This all dissipated any vague ideas of some Rumpolean fantasy of a trial that would present a spectacle of skill, wit and justice.

The court was a large Victorian theatre of absurdity; dark woods, high dock, a seemingly vast amphitheatre between myself and the Judge sitting, equally high, opposite. I was in my school uniform, he in his red robes.

The Clerk stood up and asked my name and address. Then he read the charge – “that between the dates of... and ... you did murder ..., contrary to common law. How do you plead?”


And then a Copper went to the witness box to read out my confession, after which the Judge declared me guilty of murder and sentenced me to be Detained During Her Majesty's Pleasure -"HMP". He then began a long speech of condemnation, most of which I seemed to miss as I was already back in the cells.

My transition from schoolboy to convicted murderer was so utterly routine. As I returned from the dock I had to pause at a desk in the cell area, where my sentence was noted, then ushered into a dog-kennel holding cubicle. If nothing else, it carried the echo of the Monty Python Life of Brian scene - "Crucifixion? Line to the left, one cross each..." It was mundane in the way that only a bureaucratic system can produce, draining any human significance from the most profound of experiences. I had been judged to have killed another human being, the course of my life was set for the next thirty years; and it was reduced to a meaningless procedure.


  1. is this what passes for criminal justice??!

  2. Thank goodness the system has changed with the introduction of PACE and no comment interviews. Further, I understand those under a certain age must have an adult present and for any Murder charge a solicitor too?

    I have read about serious harm. I thought this related to weapons? For example, if you were armed with a loaded gun, any person would know if one discharged it you could kill.

    Based on the information above, I am not sure that a murder conviction would stand today. Am I wrong as this only relates to newspapers and law reports from the Court of Appeal which I keep an eye on.