The “Old Bailey” – (Criminal Courts of London)
Here’s how it works.
The “Old Bailey” consists of sixteen courtrooms. Visitors are permitted into any gallery in which proceedings are in session, with priority allotted to “interested parties”, the families and friends of the participants in the case. The (overhanging) galleries are relatively small – in the area of thirty seats per gallery – leaving not a lot of seating room for uninvolved parties, otherwise known as people like me, who have just dropped by to watch the show.
January 3rd, the first day back from the “Christmas Break”, was, as I was told is common on first days back, a “slow court” day. A number of courtrooms had nothing going on in them at all. In those courtrooms that were active, the proceedings were in their preliminary stages, the court dealing with various “bookkeeping-type” motions, which need to be resolved before the meat and potatoes of the trial, or as I call it, “the good stuff”, can then get underway.
In prqctice, what this means is that a small amount of legalistic blah-blah gets processed, after which then they adjourn prior to “the big push” of the next step, which would be jury selection. The adjournment results in the clearing the courtroom, which, of course, includes the gallery.
The result of this “not an ‘ole lot gawing on” situation was that, on the morning of January 3rd – today’s pretend “today” in my London chronicle – in the course of an hour and a half, I attended the proceedings in four different courtrooms.
On the advice of a bailiff who directed me to a courtroom where there was a trial involving “a guy ‘oo ‘it anoothuh guy”, I sat in on proceedings that lasted all of five minutes, before they adjourned to chambers. I was actually relieved by that turn of events, because the presiding judge was a chronic mumbler, and I could not hear a word he was saying. There is nothing more incomprehensible than a mumbler, unless it’s a mumbler mumbling in an indecipherable upper-class accent. Even the court stenographer appeared perplexed.
When I stepped into the next courtroom, the entire gallery immediately got up and walked out. It is difficult not to take something like that personally…if one harbors certain deep-seated insecurities. I then looked down to see that the whole place was emptying out. So it couldn’t have been me. Most likely.
My third courtroom visit seemed particularly promising. The substance of the case was that a shipment cobalt aluminum, which a British company had sent to Slovakia, had ended up in Iran.
It looked suspiciously like an English company selling cobalt aluminum to Iran while pretending they were selling it to Slovakia.
I don’t think you can do that. And I wasn’t alone in that belief, because somebody was on trial.
My suspicions concerning the significance of this case were amped up during the “motions hearing”, in which the defense attorney argued for obscuring screens and electronic voice alteration, to protect the identities of the witnesses. It sounded like big doings. Selling cobalt aluminum to Iran evoked echoes of Colin Powell’s reputation-besmirching “aluminum tubing in Iraq” speech at the United Nations. I could hear jangly espionage music in my head.
The judge adjourned the proceedings after forty-five minutes, though I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps he needed to take a nap. Or, more likely, call a friend and say, “Holy Toledo! I can’t believe the case I’m presiding over! I mean, I had to appear calm on the bench, but…My Gawd!”
As I mentioned earlier, on the first day back, the cases were generally just getting started. With one exception. A murder case. Which was coming to an end.
After nineteen years.
One newspaper called it “The country’s most notorious unsolved murder.” A skeletal summary: In 1993, a black teenager named Stephen Lawrence was murdered at a bus stop by a gang of, call them, “skin heads”, chanting racial epithets. Original inquiries led to a dismissal, due to insufficient evidence, compounded, a commission later determined, by indifferent police work. Despite the persistent efforts of the victim’s mother, it appeared that the case would never be resolved.
Then, after advances in forensics linked some blood evidence to two of the suspects, almost two decades after the incident, the suspects were on trial for murder.
The trial lasted seven weeks, ending with the judge’s two-day “summing up” of the evidence, proceedings I had tried twice to get into, and failed.
The jury was now in its third day of deliberations. Other than the announcement of the verdict, the trial was over, meaning there were no courtroom proceedings to observe. But if something did happen, however, there was now the possibility, though still a slim one, of getting in, as, with the expectation of no activity, fewer outside visitors had chosen to show up.
The door to the stairway leading to the courtrooms opened, and the families of the victim and the defendants were ushered upstairs. I was second in the line of the “non-family” observers. To my surprise, I was told I could go in.
I step into the gallery, I look down, and there it is – the judge sitting up high, inexplicably attired in a red rather than the traditional black robe, a host of lawyers representing both sides, a designated reporters’ gallery, and to my left, behind the standard Plexiglas partition, two sour-looking defendants.
Court was, to most people’s surprise, in session.
The judge instructed the jury to be brought in. This could be it, I thought, suddenly losing access to my breath – the jury coming back with the verdict. Could it really be possible? “The country’s most notorious unsolved crime” was reaching its climactic resolution, and I would be there to witness it?
As it turned out, no.
What had happened was that, apparently, there was some computer-related problem in the jury room and it needed to be dealt with before the jury could continue with its deliberations. That is what we heard the jury being told when they were brought into the courtroom.
The judge also discussed upcoming scheduling issues, including the likelihood of one of juror’s needing to miss some deliberating time for medical reasons. After the judge had exhausted his, I’m sure, all very necessary chit-chat, the entire courtroom and gallery, sat in complete silence, and virtually complete stillness, waiting for the jury room equipment to be fixed.
The almost tableau-like courtroom was exploding with tension. Sitting directly in front of me, though they never acknowledged each other, were the victim’s parents, whose marriage had been shattered by the tragic events. The families of the defendants sat further down the same row from the grieving parents who had not received justice. I wondered how that felt.
The defendants, who were now in their thirties but had been teenagers when the murder was committed, sat stone-faced in the “Prisoners’ Box.” I saw them glaring at the jury, twelve strangers who could finally nail them for their actions, after years of believing they had beaten the rap.
We sat, and we waited.
I recalled a “non family” regular attender opining to me earlier that the defendants would get off, due to the defense’s argument that during the extended period between the crime and the trial, the blood evidence had been contaminated. That, of course, was that guy’s opinion. No one was certain which way it would go.
After fifteen minutes, the computer problem was finally resolved, and the jury was sent back to their deliberations. After that, it was, “All rise. Clear the gallery.” And out we went.
There was no certainty we’d be called back in. There was no telling how long the deliberations could go on for days. Despite this possibility, the families and some “Lawrence case” diehards remained, waiting in the hall. I had other obligations, which was fine. Chances were the only thing I’d miss out on if I stayed would be the rest of my day. So I left.
A couple of hours later, the jury returned with its verdict.
I heard that when it was announced, the victim’s mother sobbed, and a defendant’s father cursed the injustice. Emotions, understandably, ran high.
Did I regret missing being there at the end? No. For the most part, I felt relieved. That’s the difference between me and actual journalists.
When it get too real, I want be someplace else.