It is still a mess. It will remain a mess. I am glad I wasn't on the jury.Yep, me too. Trying to sift actual hard evidence out of the morass of hearsay, political pressure and 'that' video footage must have required the wisdom of Solomon. I'm sure they have done it right, and I congratulate them for it. It reminded me of some jury service I did many years ago. It must have been in about 1976 or 1977, so I expect that I won't get into trouble for talking about it if I don't mention names.
The jury system is one of the foundation stones of our civilisation. Anyone who is accused of a crime has a right for the evidence to be heard by a jury of his or her peers, and they - and only they - decide on guilt or innocence. Not the judge, nor the police, nor the newspapers, nor the Home Secretary. It's not a perfect system, but it's better than anything else yet invented. Balanced with the right to a jury trial is the duty to perform jury service when asked to do so. Most people use every trick in the book to get out of it, but I was in my early 20s and was quite happy to do my jury service just for the experience.
The case concerned a couple of young men who had been badly beaten up by some local thugs. The young men were in court, nice chaps, good families, well-spoken. The thugs were there too, and suitably shaven-headed, tattooed and thuggish. The young men had been involved with a Sealed Knot re-enactment of a Civil War battle near to Leeds, and in the evening they had strayed into the Kirkstall Road area to find a pub and have a drink. In full Cavalier dress: long, flowing hair, floppy hat with feathers, thigh-boots. When you live in a city, you get to know where you can go, and where it is not advisable. I would definitely have been in two minds over going to this pub dressed normally, never mind in fancy dress. Inevitably, a bit of name-calling started. I'm pretty sure the word 'poof' was involved, but in 1976 this was just a low-grade meaningless insult, not a crime against humanity. A fight ensued in which the young men, for all their Civil War bravado, were soundly thumped. Cuts and bruises, nothing major, but the Police got involved and quickly rounded up the local talent. Eventually, it ended up in court.
The judge was very keen to point out that we should try the case on the evidence before us, and not on anything we might think about the accused, or have heard from others, or might assume from their appearance and demeanour. That is absolutely right and proper: anything else is the stuff of mob rule, witch-hunts and lynchings. But it does raise a problem - common sense has to take a back seat.
In the case I was sitting on, this was indeed a problem. For one thing, the young men had been involved that afternoon in a battlefield enactment, and admitted that they had received some of their injuries from that. They were trying to argue that this cut was from an opposing halberd, whereas this one was inflicted by the defandants; this bruise was got in a ruck with some Roundheads, whereas this bruise was not. It was a flimsy case from the outset. Also, it seemed from the evidence that the police had been told of an assault and had immediately gone out and arrested three of the most likely candidates. In this they were probably right - the three defendants seemed a nasty lot and, if they weren't guilty of this assault, it is likely that they were guilty of others. But that's not evidence. The behaviour of the police witnesses in court was appalling. The Sergeant came in and gave his evidence and sat down. The Constable who gave evidence next positioned himself so that he could see the Sergeant, and paused before answering every question until he had seen whether the Sergeant nodded or shook his head. It was blatant collusion, and every single jury member noticed it. Added to the fact that there was no direct evidence to link the three to the assault, other than their general nastiness and being in the area at the time, and we had no option but to find them not guilty. Common sense said they probably did it; the evidence, such as it was, did not support it. The police Sergeant snorted in disgust and it didn't help when the biggest of the three, who had to file out of the court past the jury box, nodded at me in passing and said "Thanks, mate". I had been elected jury foreman, and it was me who had to announce the verdicts. An uncomfortable moment.
In retrospect, the police were doing their best to nail some pretty unpleasant characters, and they probably knew that the three had committed the assaults, or had been involved in similar offences which had not got as far as a court appearance. But the police's opinion is not enough to convict in a British court, and rightly so. No doubt the police were mightily pissed off with the jury and felt that we were stopping them doing their job, but that's the way our justice system works, and I'd rather live under this than any other system. Get the evidence, persuade a jury, convict. No evidence, no crime.
I have been reminded of this by the Stephen Lawrence trial, and the criticism of the police in their apparent tardiness in searching and then arresting the racist thugs that committed this dreadful crime. An anonymous tip-off isn't evidence, and we are so quick to blame the police for heavy-handedness when it suits us. Perhaps they were just aware that the case needed to be strong, and that arresting and searching people without sufficient cause would make a successful prosecution less, not more, likely.