It's my first jury trial and I am prosecuting a crack dealer. My strongest piece of evidence has just been disallowed. So how can I prove that the defendant is lying?by Alex McBride / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Fresh-faced baby barristers nervously watched the junior clerk laying out the briefs on the postroom shelf. That shelf meant everything—it was our shelf of dreams. How we wished that we, like the grandest silks, could be prosecuting celebrity murderers or defending psychopaths. In fact, we’d settle for anything better than our reality of suburban magistrates’ courts and petty crime.
“Please let it not be Harlow youth court,” I prayed. You had to run the gauntlet there, past the defendants and their families gobbing by the entrance. No one got through unscathed. By 6.30pm, I was the only one without a brief and reconciled to Harlow. Then a folder arrived, tied in white ribbon. Defence briefs come in pink ribbon.
“Trial at Southwark crown court, sir. Prosecuting,” said the clerk.
My first jury trial—and I was prosecuting. I hadn’t ever prosecuted before.
It all began when local crack dealers realised that Hackney lay unprotected between five and six in the morning, as the day shift took over from the night shift at Shoreditch police station. For that whole hour, they were able to do a handsome trade in early bird specials.
Two young coppers eventually spotted the chink in the Met’s armour. One morning they drew up alongside the dealers in an unmarked car. No one twigged they were police until they were out of the car and, as required by law, putting on their police caps.
The first dealer ran in lengthening strides down the road; the second swallowed his stash; the third, Ollie, never top of the class, started to leg it, tossing his drugs towards a shuttered shop as he ran. One of the officers spotted it. “What’s in that bag you threw?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ollie.
Bad answer. “Verbals,” as they’re called, can be very powerful evidence since they come straight from the defendant’s mouth. The correct response would have been either “What bag?” or to say nothing at all. By admitting knowledge of the bag, it was only a small step for a jury to find that Ollie knew what was inside it—crack—making him guilty of a serious offence and liable for a long sentence.
The day after receiving my brief, I sat in court trying to look like an old hand. But my opponent could spot a newbie.
“You’re sitting on the wrong side of the court, virgin.” Having humiliated me, she added, “By the way, I’m going to argue out his verbal.” I’d spent all night preparing my opening address, which outlines the case to the jury. It was painstakingly constructed around Ollie’s verbal, which was a near admission of guilt. The verbal was even more important to Ollie. He was running a variation on the classic “plant” defence, but instead of alleging the police had planted the drugs, Ollie was claiming that one of the other dealers had thrown the drugs and the police were pinning it on him.
The defence argued that the “What’s in the bag?” question showed that the cop had grounds for suspecting Ollie might be guilty of an offence. If an officer has such a suspicion, then he must caution the suspect before asking any questions. The failure to caution was a breach of police codes of practice and therefore Ollie’s verbal should be excluded from evidence. I countered that while the failure to caution was a breach, it was not serious enough for it to be excluded from evidence. The judge disagreed.
Without the verbal linking him to the bag, Ollie’s ludicrous story, as given to police in interview, almost stood up. He claimed that he had come from his girlfriend’s house on the bus looking for a Lucozade. Finding the shop closed, he had got chatting with the two dealers outside the shop. He hadn’t known about any drugs until the police arrested him.
In cross-examination, the defence tried to create doubt over the police’s truthfulness. One officer had seen the bag land by the shop but the other hadn’t. This seemed odd, the defence suggested, since they were standing next to each other. Inconsistencies undermine a witness’s credibility and sow doubt in the jury’s mind. So during my cross-examination, I needed to prove Ollie was lying. Skimming his police interview, I noticed that he’d said that he couldn’t remember his girlfriend’s house number.
Me: You can’t remember her number?
Me: Are you bad at numbers?
Ollie: Yes, very.
Me: Really? On page seven of your interview, you give a detailed series of buses—30, 256, 243—you took to get to the shop. You’re brilliant at numbers.
Ollie: (scratching his chin) Um.
Me: You’re lying because you weren’t coming from your girlfriend’s, were you?
Ollie’s answer didn’t matter. He had been caught telling a lie and what was he trying to hide if not that he was dealing? The jury took an hour to deliver a guilty verdict. The judge gave him five years.
I stood undefeated. The Jake LaMotta of the crown court. But my unblemished record wasn’t to last: crims were lining up to shatter my glass jaw, of course. That’s the baleful seductiveness of the shelf of dreams—once you have a taste for it, you keep coming back for one more win like a punch-drunk boxer.