Thursday, September 17, 2009

The English 'Columbine' Two...

Regular visitors to the Throne will recall that I yield to no man in the strength of my support for the presumption of innocence in respect of those charged with criminal offences. For newer, or more occasional visitors, I have written of my support for the concept in cases as diverse as the recent Gerrard ‘affray’ case, of which of course, he was famously acquitted, the Ali Dizaei case and the potential charges to be levelled against the police officer involved in the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest in London.

That said, any civilised society, and despite the best efforts of the present government, we still just about qualify to consider ourselves as such, requires a robust system for managing the prosecution of (potential) offenders. Every such system of which I am aware is centred on there being independent courts of law in which those accused of criminal behaviour may plead their innocence in front of a jury of their peers.

That, in essence, is what I understand to be role of the criminal courts: to assess whether those accused of offences are either guilty as charged or not.

That is why I am astonished by the tidal wave of legal and journalistic criticism being faced by the Greater Manchester Police and, more savagely, the Crown Prosecution Service, for instituting criminal proceedings against Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight, the teenagers from Manchester who were alleged to have been planning an English ‘Columbine’ massacre.

Indeed, I have looked in vain for a single report into the acquittal of these two boys, which has not indulged in sometimes trenchant criticism of the decision to prosecute them in the first place. To illustrate my point, I have provided links to press reports from across the political spectrum here, here and here and just for good measure to three more here, here and here. I could have linked to more, including the BBC; but I think you get the picture.

All of them refer to the criticism levelled at the prosecuting authorities by defence counsel, Roderick Carus QC, for taking these boys to court in the first place.

Before I go any further, it is only fair to acknowledge that Mr Carus’ knowledge of the facts in this case is infinitely greater than mine, as, I have no doubt whatever, is his knowledge of the law; but let me just examine one or two of the points he made in his court-steps critique of the decision to prosecute the pair for conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions – effectively to potentially commit mass murder, such as:

“Why could they [presumably the police] not take them to one side, slap them on the wrists and say ‘don’t be silly boys, now off you go and enjoy your careers in the Army?’”


“I would hope the prosecuting authorities make more allowances for the frivolity of youth in future.”

Well let me see, Mr Carus. Imagine for a minute that the police had simply taken the pair of them to one side and “slapped their wrists” and then released them to join the Army, where, presumably, they would have access to firearms and explosives. Continue to imagine the firestorm of criticism which would have been levelled at the police had either of them used their access to those weapons and explosives to put their 'frivolous' and ill-conceived ‘plans’ into operation, resulting in the violent deaths of large numbers of people.

That firestorm, hungrily stoked by the same journalists currently criticising the decision to prosecute in this case, would doubtless result in the resignation, or even dismissal, of the Chief Constable of GMP, to say nothing of numbers of his subordinates, and in all probability the resignation of the Home Secretary, were he or she a member of a party other than Teflon Labour.

It may be an unfortunate analogy, doubly so, since the two boys were acquitted, but I wonder what the fourth estate and the critical Mr Carus would have made of a decision to give the parents of Baby Peter a ‘slap on the wrist’?

Mr Carus’ comments aside, what of that decision to prosecute?

The police investigated what they clearly believed to be a plot to commit mass murder; in other words, they did their jobs. The evidence they assembled, albeit ultimately rejected by the jury, was forwarded to the Crown Prosecution Service, who, after mature consideration, decided that there was both a realistic prospect of conviction based on the papers (in other words, in their professional opinion, more that a fifty percent prospect of conviction) and an overwhelming public interest in prosecuting the case.

In turn, two barristers were briefed to prepare and present the case on behalf of the Crown. One of those barristers was the eminent QC, Peter Wright, who led the prosecution of Steve Wright, the Ipswich prostitute murderer, those of the recently convicted ‘airline suicide bombers’ and was junior counsel for the prosecution in the Harold Shipman case; hardly the career profile of a man who would fight shy of advising that an allegedly weak case was not worthy of prosecution.

Taking the argument one step further, if the case against the two was as weak as Mr Carus suggests, why wasn’t he successful in submitting that his client had no case to answer at the close of the prosecution case? If he did make such a submission, it was clearly rejected by the judge, who in doing so made the tacit observation that there was indeed a case for his client to answer. If, on the other hand, he didn’t address the judge on that matter, then he clearly accepted that there was such a case himself; he cannot have it both ways.

But let me return to the point I made at the beginning of this post.

The criminal courts are there to assess whether those put in front of them by the Crown are guilty of the offences with which they have been charged. They do not, and should not, exist to simply rubber-stamp the conviction of those against whom the evidence of guilt is so overwhelming that there can be no question of their possible acquittal.

Similarly, when a case has reached a jury for a decision as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, the prosecuting authorities have done their job: the verdict on that work is then in the hands of the twelve people on the jury who have to be satisfied so that they are sure of the guilt of the accused, before they can convict him.

To criticise those same authorities for failing to secure convictions when the power to do so is ultimately (and rightly) in the hands of twelve people with little or no previous knowledge of the law is grossly unfair, as indeed it is to criticise the system of justice in this country when it has demonstrably worked in this case as it was designed to do.

On mature reflection and when no longer basking in the triumphalist light of the headline hungry media, Mr Carus may just agree with me.

Meanwhile, Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight are free to resume their lives, having had the presumption of their innocence confirmed at the end of their trial.

That is our system; and whatever the results, perverse or otherwise, long may it remain so.

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