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Friday, 17 February 2006
Trial by tabloid
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In a post two or three weeks ago about the trial of Abu Hamza, I argue that a defendant in a criminal trial should be tried solely on the evidence and that other aspects, such as the fact that he is generally agreed to be a "bad lot", or even, in this particular case, that Islam is a malign ideology, should not influence the conduct of the trial or its outcome:
 
The job of the prosecution counsel in the Abu Hamza trial is to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt,  that the defendant has broken the law. At the moment, preaching from the Koran is not illegal so the Koran is irrelevant to the prosecution argument. What is relevant is whether Abu Hamza's words - Koran-inspired or not - could incite murder and racial hatred. The prosecution counsel is quite right to distance himself from the words of the Koran, to state: "This prosecution is not brought to criticize Islam or criticise the teachings of the Koran. It is brought because of what the defendant says." 
 
Conversely, the job of the counsel for the defence is to defend his client, regardless of whether he personally thinks he is guilty, or, certainly, whether anyone else - the public, The Telegraph, The Sun,  - think he is a "bad lot".
 
Ross Clark in this week's Spectator (subscription only), makes a similar argument with regard to the trial of Sion Jenkins.
 
I have no idea whether Sion Jenkins — the former Hastings deputy headmaster who was this week acquitted of murdering his foster daughter after juries in two successive trials failed to reach a verdict — committed the foul deed or not. I wasn’t there...All I do know is that had I been on the jury sifting through five months’ worth of evidence in one of the most eagerly followed murder trials of recent years, I would almost certainly have been one of those members who felt unable to convict. After three trials and nine years there has not been a single piece of convincing evidence which implicates Jenkins as the killer. And that, in any civilised legal system, would be that: the prisoner must go free.

Different rules apply, however, in Britain’s alternative legal system, otherwise known as tabloid journalism....The past few days have seen Jenkins tried for a fourth time in absentia — the tabloids, though choosing their words very carefully, effectively reaching the verdict that it woz Jenkins wot done it. ‘What the jury was not told’, the Mail screamed on Friday, listing three pieces of ‘missing evidence’ it claims should have been presented in court. What evidence? Jenkins, according to Lois, had a foul temper and sometimes slapped her in the face, leading her on one occasion to hide in the loft....

The Jenkins case has highlighted a little commented-upon change in the law under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which permits use of ‘bad character’ evidence in criminal trials. In future, juries will be fed much more in the way of previous affairs, acts of dishonesty and errors of judgment which have nothing to do with the crime under consideration, and invited to draw conclusions. ...

It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this could lead: accused of rape and with little evidence to prove it, the prosecution is now free to contact your spurned girlfriends for comment and to cite in court any visit you might have made to a porn website....

We are approaching the world of Albert Camus’s Outsider, where a man is condemned to death not so much because he killed a stranger — which he maintains was done in self-defence — but because he failed to cry at his mother’s funeral.

I couldn't agree more. In the course of my recent jury service I was impressed by ordinary jurors' ability to stick to the evidence and not let irrelevant factors, opinions or prejudice cloud their judgement. Of course this was not a high profile trial and was not splashed all over the tabloids. The jury system is not perfect but generally works most of the time. However, it is in danger of being undermined by the admission of "bad character" evidence and by "trial by tabloid". This must not be allowed to happen.

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Posted on 02/17/2006 7:14 AM by Mary Jackson
Comments
18 Feb 2006
Send an emailjohn utting
the most damning piece of evidence i.e billy jo's bone fragments found on jenkins clothes was deemed not admissable because it hadnt been presented to the defence early enough.also in view of jenkins track record with young girls,a statement earlier from one of his daugters that he preferred billies company to that of his wife,further that billies attitude to him was'flirtatious and his own statement that he knew her 'better than anyone,i think you can bet your bottom dollar that jenkins had an improper relationship with billie.this gives him plenty of motive if she was exercisig the power this gave her over him as he is a control freak who has to be in charge.i say -guilty as hell!'