Looks Matter

We are told these days that looks do not matter. We are told that those who are slightly, or even heavily overweight should not be ashamed. They should be proud of who they are and how they look because looks do not make the person. The person makes the person. We have adverts where shapely women show off their curves and point two fingers at the sterotypical size 6 figure that has, over the years, been portrayed as the perfect form. Oddly, as women’s magazines start to use models with a fuller figure, the mens magazines are full of tanned muscle bound, six pack toting chaps.. it seems a bit odd to me.. but that’s another blog. I’ll stick with my family pack! The bottom line though is that how you look is not a factor that should determine your opportunities or you abilities. It is most definitely not something that should be used against you in a discriminatory fashion.

A person should be proud of who they are without fear of being singled out, sneered at, abused or overlooked. Conversely everyone also needs to be accepting of others and challenge those who are not. Looks and appearance DO NOT matter.

With nearly 24 years service I have been IMG_4601very fortunate to have been awarded three medals during my service with the police. I am very proud of them and whenever I get the opportunity to wear them I will. There was a time when turning up at court to give evidence meant a tunic (as above) was essential. Times have changed and now officers turn up at court in combat trousers, body armour and the well worn coat or fleece that they wear every day on duty. Sadly, even after my fight for a tunic, I’m not allowed to wear it at court. I think I’d probably defy the rule for crown court but for magistrates I wear my fleece.

In addition to my physical medals I also have a ribbon bar. This is always attached to my fleece when attending court. I’m proud of my uniform, I’m proud of my service and I’m proud to be a police officer. Granted, I do not wear the medals themselves, but I wear my ribbon bar because I can and because I’m entitled to. I have never been asked to remove the ribbon bar.

This week we have had the case of Cpl Mark Kershaw appearing in court in Hull as a witness. He was the victim of a dreadful assault by 3 people and attended at court, in a civilian suit wearing his medals. His wearing of the medals was challenged by the defence on the basis that they might ‘unfairly affect the jury’. The suggestion here was that standing in the witness box wearing his medals may cause the jury to incorrectly give his evidence greater credence. The jury may fall on the side of the victim because he was a war hero and would get favouritism. The judge agreed and for the four day trial Cpl Kershaw was banned from wearing his medals.

Does the wearing of medals sway a jury so easily? I’ve never been asked to remove my ribbon bar. I’ve proudly stood in the witness box wearing my medal ribbons and been called a liar, told I’m making things up and I’m particularly rubbish at my job. The defence have not had any qualms in challenging me, regardless of the decoration on my chest.

There was some discussion about the Cpl Kershaw case yesterday and one of the arguments put forward supporting the barrister and judge was that the Cpl has previous cautions. He apparently has cautions for violence and, if I understand the circumstances correctly, a deal was struck that the cautions would not be mentioned if the medals were not worn.

I find this a little odd. If the court is interested in the truth then the truth was something very different than that presented to the jury. The truth was that Cpl Kershaw is a decorated soldier commended for bravery. The truth is that Cpl Kershaw also has a police caution/s for violence. It seems a little odd to me that the defence asked for the medals to be removed. I can’t imagine, after the treatment I’ve had in the box, a barrister giving up the opportunity to build up a witness based on his gallantry and medals and then shoot him down with his previous history.

Ultimately the case concluded and the 2 suspects (a third had pleaded guilty) were unanimously convicted of assaulting Cpl Kershaw. Sentencing will follow in December. So it was a win for the victim yet it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. A deal was struck. It shouldn’t have been. The Cpl should have been allowed to wear his medals if he chose to do so and any self respecting barrister would have been able to leverage them to the advantage of the defence in this case. One of the purposes of the defence and the prosecution is to discredit the witnesses. Why did that not happen in this case?

The defence and judge claimed that wearing the medals may ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of his character. Cpl Kershaw had the medals but also had cautions. As the defence chose not to try and discredit his character by use of his previous cautions it seems clear to me that it was his ‘appearance’ that was the issue. The worry was what the jury may assume based on what they see and not on what they hear.

Many years ago I dealt with a pretty awful young girl in care. She had committed a nasty robbery on two young girls, of around the same age, walking home from school. The evidence was compelling but she pleaded not guilty and went to trial. She turned up in court in jeans, a scruffy top and hair like she’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. She looked a mess. My two victims on the other hand turned up in school uniform, ties and blazers. They were beautifully presented, spoke eloquently and were a credit to both themselves and their parents.  The contrast between the two sides was stark. Granted this was not before a jury but before youth court bench but were they asked to dress down? No.

If we had a frail pensioner beaten and robbed during a burglary by a violent thug what would happen at court? Would a jury be swayed by the fact that the witness in the box is a frail, weak, elderly pensioner in need of a sympathy vote? No. They would consider the evidence. We do not hide such persons behind a screen to stop the jury drawing conclusions based on how they look or speak.

If Cpl Kershaw wanted to wear his medals he should have been allowed to do so. If the defence then worked those medals against him then that’s his own fault. Even if not wearing them, a shrewd barrister, with the requisite knowledge, who wanted to discredit him may have asked about them anyway.

The fact remains that in this case the medals of Cpl Kershaw were seen as a fact that could adversely influence the jury. His appearance may cause the jury to believe him to be honest and trustworthy. His appearance may secure him a conviction he wouldn’t get if not wearing them. Is this really the trust the judge and barrister had in the jury?

Then we find the two defendants were both allowed to wear a poppy. What does a poppy signify? What mindset might it engender in a jury? Someone who cares perhaps? Some one empathetic to the losses our military personnel have suffered over the years? An upstanding, compassionate and caring member of the community?Would the presence of the poppies ‘unfairly affect the jury’ or give a ‘false impression’ of the character of the defendants?

In the court room it is EVIDENCE that is king. Not the appearance of the witness. So it would seem that whilst we say appearance doesn’t matter and we should take people as they are… this doesn’t apply to medals in court because, it would seem, that ‘Looks matter’

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