Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Juries abjured - Why MPs should press pause before pressing tweet


When you start out as a barrister it strangely takes a very long time to learn to speak normally in court. Very experienced and able barristers are able to conduct themselves as if in conversation. Newcomers and youngsters are most prone to falling prey to courtspeak, ten words when one would do, four syllables when one would suffice. Young or old, however, all barristers know that their words in court count and sometimes those words have to be chosen with absolute care. Mercifully, outside court, that pressure of scrutiny is lifted and barristers can speak more freely. However even allowing for that relative freedom few in number are the barristers that are prepared to comment on whether a verdict was right or wrong.

MPs bear the burden of having their spoken words weighed in every context. Of course speeches in the chamber usually bear the most significance but any chance remark can be seized upon and the MP called upon to explain themselves.

Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central has drawn praise and censure for commenting on Twitter in the wake of the acquittal of two boys tried for the murder of Yousef Makki in Cheshire. She tweeted: 

'You do have to ask if these defendants were black, at state school and from, say, Moss Side whether they would have been acquitted.' 

This tweet was picked up and reported by the Daily Mail prompting a flurry of commentary culminating in Ms Powell doubling down on her remark:

‘I stand by my comments on this. My point is wider: (not as judge & jury in this one) black, poor, young men - as is well-evidenced - are much more likely to get life-sentences for a peripheral, if any, role in a killing. These were acquitted.’

As far as I know Ms Powell did not attend any part of the trial. She certainly was not privy to the jury’s deliberations and therefore any comment she has made on the case will have been predicated on what she has heard and read about it.

There was a time when murder trials were reported almost verbatim in newspapers and readers could consider themselves almost as well acquainted with the evidence and submissions of counsel as the jurors. Those days are long, long gone. What gets reported today is a tiny, tiny fraction of what is said in court and in the absence of cameras only those in court get to see what is shown and how things are said.

Ms Powell’s original tweet was plainly a rhetorical question and it is clear what answer she would give. But why? How could she possibly know the answer to that question without hearing the evidence? How does she even know the ethnicity of the defendants given that they are entitled to anonymity as youths?

She assumes a great deal in her remark and most particularly assumes that the jury did not heed the judge’s directions in summing up and did not weigh carefully the evidence in determining whether they were sure of the defendants’ guilt. But maybe it’s not this particular jury’s objectivity she impugns but that of other juries. Which other juries? Which other cases?

Ms Powell has been quick to point to research and findings concerning potential institutional racial bias within the criminal justice system. There is an extremely important discussion to be had on this topic which is well served by those that have carefully researched the position. Nobody is served by a cavalier analysis of a single case where the author can’t know anything of the evidence that was called.

You can fight prejudice or inflame it by appearing to fight it. All those that work within the criminal justice system should welcome discussion and challenge but when it comes to the verdict to be reached in a particular trial there is a reason we entrust that task to a jury sitting in court not MPs who should know better.


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