I know there are some fantastic court reporters around. I’ve met a number of them over the years. It’s a pleasure to read their articles. Unfortunately however trial advocates in the Crown Court will be wearily familiar with the type of lazy press reporting that frequently passes for journalism these days. This involves a couple of usually local journalists sitting in court during the prosecution opening of the case to the jury and faithfully recording all the salient and salacious details after which they are usually not seen again until the end of the case when they report the verdicts and any sentences. Invariably not a word of the actual evidence in the case gets reported at all. It’s as if nothing much matters apart from what the prosecution’s allegations are. The reader is then just left to try to work out the basis of any verdicts for themselves.
I witnessed a particular egregious example of this practice in a trial last year. After eight days the trial of seven men had to be halted and the jury discharged after it was discovered that a national newspaper had run a story based on the original copy of a local new agency reporter which included passages from the opening note of the prosecutor’s address that had not in the end been included in what the prosecutor actually told the jury. It turned out that the reporter, who along with others had been supplied in advance with erroneous copies of the prosecution opening which had not been properly edited, had written up her story and filed her copy with her agency long before the prosecutor finished what he had to say. If the reporter had bothered to stay and actually listen to what was said she would have been able to report this accurately. As it was her story contained material that the jury never heard and which was very prejudicial to at least one defendant.
I came across yet another example only today. It was a report of a case that I have just finished. The report, which claimed that it had been “updated”, was based almost entirely on the contents of the prosecution’s opening delivered a few days earlier. Almost the only “updating” I could find was of the verdict and sentence. It would have been almost impossible from reading this report to have worked out how on earth a man already convicted of a section 18 wounding with intent to cause really serious harm in respect of the same incident had now not been convicted of murder but only of manslaughter.
A large fracas took place early one morning in the course of which a single stab would to the chest left one man seriously injured. After he collapsed his heart stopped and during the time it took to get it going again he had suffered a catastrophic brain injury. The defendant was prosecuted for attempted murder and the s.18 offence. He was acquitted of the attempted murder charge, always very hard to prove since it requires proof of an actual intent to kill but was convicted of the s.18 offence. A few months after the trial the victim died.
At the first trial the defence was a complete denial of involvement and by implication at least the finger of suspicion was pointed at another individual. The Crown case was that the defendant had made admissions to the killing to a number of people, had tried to arrange false alibis with others, arranged for a female witness who had been heavily involved in the fracas to dye her hair another colour and arranged to have CCTV footage at his premises deleted. No great surprise then when the jury rejected the defence and convicted of the s.18 offence.
Once the defendant faced a murder charge he realised that he could not continue to maintain his stance of lack of involvement. He therefore admitted that he had indeed been the stabber, admitted that he had made some admissions, admitted he had lied to the first jury and sought to explain that he had acted as he did because he was in denial and could not face his responsibility for the death of the victim. Following the victim’s death he felt he had to own up and come clean. He explained all this to the jury in the second trial.
After more than a day of deliberation in a trial that had taken only two days before the jury retired, the jury evidently accepted the reasons for the defendant’s lies and accepted also that when he flashed the knife he had only intended that to be warning to others and had not intended to cause the serious injury that was in fact caused. No doubt the fact there was only a single stab would was highly relevant to the jury’s consideration.
A fair assessment might also have concluded that the quality of some of the evidence from the prosecution witnesses was less than impressive. One had initially refused to come into court, another tried to leave part way through his evidence and two others who were called turned out not to be able to help very much with any of the facts of the incident.
Had anyone bothered to report any of the actual evidence as opposed to what is always going to be an almost entirely one-sided version of events that a prosecution opening invariably is, it is just possible that the readers of the newspaper in question might have understood how it was that the jury had been able to reach the verdicts they did.
Ignorance of what happens in our criminal courts seems to be fairly widespread. When the public is left to figure it out from poor quality reporting it is no wonder they do it understand what happens in court. Whatever the parlous state of newspapers finances may be if they can’t be bothered to report criminal cases properly it would be better if they stuck to reporting about garden parties and the village fete and didn’t report on court proceedings at all.