This is a guest blog by Rianne a trainee solicitor, 6 months off qualification and focusing predominantly on criminal law. She is based in South-East London and defends a variety of clients, mainly under the legal aid scheme.
There is often much criticism of the defence and questioning of morals when they represent offenders responsible for the most heinous crimes. This is a misinformed and ridiculous attitude. It engenders a them and us mindset that is corrosive to relations across the whole criminal justice system.
It’s often seen as a “game” of winners and losers but as Rianne points out; in many cases there are no winners at all.
Rianne can be found on twitter here;
How can you defend someone like that?
I will admit that once upon a time, I supported the idea of capital punishment. This arose, as it does for many people, out of gut instinct and without really knowing enough about the subject to form a reasoned decision.
Since then I have studied to become a solicitor and found myself working in criminal defence law for the last year and a half. I was always a fan of criminal law, yet I used to think that my head was firmly stuck in a prosecutor’s cap and I could envisage my career heading in this direction. A brief stint of work experience at the CPS soon knocked some sense into me.
This time last year, I had both the fortune and misfortune of working on a murder trial. I say fortune as having access to the complex criminal proceedings of this level, spending time at the Old Bailey and working with incredible criminal barristers was a massive privilege. However I will always be haunted by the details.
Our client in this case was a 17 year old boy; he had been 16 at the time of the offence. It was a typical south east London stabbing. Gangs. Knives. Bravado. Confrontation. One fatal blow. For no good reason at all.
I spent the best part of the two month trial visiting B everyday in the court cells. After being slightly apprehensive at first, I soon formed a good relationship with him and would spend court breaks chatting and gossiping rather than actually having a need to take instructions. B was quite your typical teenager; it was difficult at first to get more than a mono syllabic grunt out of him. However he was sweet, kind and obviously cared a great deal about his family-especially his younger brother. He had managed to wrap all the cells’ staff around his little finger in order to have double lunch portions and all the hot chocolate he could drink.
Whilst not in the cells, I also spent a lot of time with B’s mum who came to court every day. There is a lot of time spent waiting around during a trial. In this time I got to know her well. B’s family were incredibly supportive and destroyed all notions that criminal teenagers must have awful parents and an even worse upbringing. Only legal visits are allowed whilst at court and I therefore had to pass quite a few messages to B from his Mum. “I will always love you and support you regardless of what happens.” Also numerous messages asking him to sort his hair out or to ask why he wasn’t wearing the suit she had taken down to prison for him the weekend before.
B arrived on the scene without any previous convictions and I still cannot work out how he managed to get himself into this situation. 9 boys in total were charged with murder. One other for perverting the course of justice. Only one inflicted the wound, however the principle of joint enterprise, the prosecution say, makes them all guilty. I fear that for some schools in the local area the belief is that if you are not part of a gang or an associate, the only alternative is to be a target.
B was convicted of murder by unanimous verdict after 35 painful hours of jury deliberations. Possibly the longest and most tense week of my life. Every callback into court following a jury note sent a ripple of fear through everybody present. By the time of the verdict I noticed that even the manliest of solicitors had quivering hands whilst taking notes. The jury were also convinced that 2 others committed murder, 2 did not and the rest were guilty of manslaughter.
This brings me back to the question of capital punishment. B is now serving a life sentence. If the death penalty had not been abolished, he could now be waiting for execution. One QC eloquently raised this matter in his closing speech, asking the jury how it would affect their decision making if death was the resulting punishment for these young boys, whether it would make them reconsider the apportionment of guilt. I would challenge anyone to meet this boy and tell me that his death would be justified.
To see B convicted and given a life sentence was hard enough, I cannot even imagine how hard it would have been if I had known his life was in the balance. To label someone a murderer evokes fear and implies that person is a danger to society. To coin a common phrase you would not like to get stuck down a dark alley with that person. It had never crossed my mind that B could be dangerous. I do not think that his incarceration is preventing further offending. I honestly believe that he did not appreciate the consequences of his actions and did not intend to murder. Not that I want to make excuses for him. The sad truth is that in London, young boys frequently get stabbed. Many of our clients have been a victim of stabbing and a lot have inflicted stab wounds. Most of the time, it is not critical and therefore youths presume that this is an acceptable method of establishing their gang rivalries and warning people off their turf. The true implications are never appreciated.
The day before the verdict I noticed a change in B. In his eyes there was an acceptance of what he had done, an acknowledgement of how the rest of his life was going to be and the desperate feeling of regret. Myself and the junior barrister left the cells very close to tears. He will regret that one moment in time for the rest of his life. I do not believe that he would have a life of crime had it not been for this incident. His family were preparing to move out of the country following B’s GCSEs and they will always wonder why they didn’t get on that plane sooner. Who can say what will happen now as he spends 15 years with other ‘lifers’ and becomes an adult in that environment. On my most recent visit to the prison, he had already become withdrawn, reluctant to talk and obviously gearing up to be the tough man in order to ensure protection.
This comes from the point of view of knowing a defendant. I cannot even start to imagine what the victim’s family went through losing their child/brother and then facing 2 trials, attending every day, and finally the sentence. All I can say is that they were very dignified throughout it all. There have not been any winners in this.