04 March 2008

Summing up for the defence

An interesting meeting ce soir that reminded me of the one time in my life when i felt i had acted quick wittedly.

Back in the late 1960s I was nabbed from my apprentice publisher job to do jury duty down in some London backwater.

I was very dutiful and took notes which was just as well since it was a complicated case of cooking the books, both partners cooking behind each other's back and believing themselves to be the only one on the lam. Hence the company being stripped in double-quick time.

Not that it matters to this story, but the jury's job was also to decided on degree of guilt, and i was determined to keep track of each penny and guide my fellow jurors to a fair verdict. God! Talk about innocent idealist youth.

The case dragged on which i didnt mind because the two defending counsels (1 for each) and the prosecutor and above all the judge were ALL wonderful characters you dont see any more.

First off, the 2 counsel were young and clever but not as clever as m'lud, and one case not as classically trained as moi.

The court rooms were always being changed, Friday had come and the judge adjourned with a common phrase about meeting 'aliunde' - some other place, to be decided.

We were also looking at a bank holiday and one of the bright counsel - mishearing the -unde for the first day of the week - leapt up and reminded Hizzonner that, "My Lord, Monday is a holiday."

I had been thinking to myself how wonderful it was to hear these old latin phrases and the eagerness with which the young barrister went for the brownie points brought forth an involuntary and very loud shriek of laughter. (Hey, I was young, it was my first court case).

*Every*body stared, including M'lud who gave the ever so slightest tweak of the mouth: "It appears, Mr Percival, that a member of the jury has a firmer grasp of the latinate than yourself." But I really DO digress ...

As I say, our courts of law were miles from my Fleet Street office and it was a right bore going back each evening at 6 to catch up on work.

One evening I was on a bus when I realised that seated several seats ahead were none other than the Judge and the two defence counsels, heading back to the Inns of Court just up from my offices.

M'Lud was sounding off and pontificating away and the young men were simpering correctly. Suddenly the judge made a crack about OUR case that was going on presently. Unbelievable. He referred to one of the defendants and said that "I could sum up for the defence and with this jury he'd still be looking at between 3 to 5 years for forgery alone."

The two young men laughed and, in his mirth, one turned to look back and I swear he caught my eye, even tho' I was buried in the Evening Standard.

With great speed, what went thru my mind was:

  • This trial has gone on for a long time and the jury will certainly be dismissed with thanks and maybe immunity for a few years.
  • I cannot risk a mistrial and be thrown back into the pool
  • If that counsel tells the others that a juror is sitting behind them and heard their chat, the judge will call a mistrial and be damn'd embrarrassed if the whole story came out
  • Do something, lad.

    It wasnt my stop - it was miles from any well-bred fellah's stop.

  • I pulled the cord and swiveled out of the seat fast so I was facing the back of the bus and the stairs down. I fancy I might have affected a hunch or a limp or some such disguise to throw them further off the scent.
  • I heard the trio being utterly silent, as if turned to scrutinise my back. I fancied the judge looking *very* concerned.
  • As I reached the bottom of the stairs (out of sight of the legal beagles) I shouted out to no one in particular and in my broadest gorblimey East London burr,

    "Orrl roit then, Fred - tha's me lot, yeah?. I'm orff home, nice cuppa and feet up fronta the tele, know wot Oi mean?"

    The conductor gave me a weird look - quite a few passengers gave me a weird look for picking such an non spot to descend. The bus roared off and I was alone. I started walking and i walked n walked, too nervous to look in a boozer to ask my way.

    Finally I saw a cab and had him take me home - I'd missed any decent working hours - and that was that.

    Since jurors and the law didnt mix, I couldnt tell their reaction but I did imagine they were eyeing me nervously and with more than average interest, so I made a point of talking in my loudest foppish Kensington accent.

    I liked to think that the bus journey had ended with the judge assessing the situation in terms of recusal and mistrial and saying,

    "Look, it couldnt have been the same blighter: we dont draw juries from the same locale as the law courts; secondly, that accent was pure south london and nothing like the smatter of conversation I've overheard from this gentleman. Tell you what, you two watch him like a hawk and report back to me. If he seems in any way to recognise you as his bus companions, or be smirking as if in on some joke, let me know and I shall do the necessary. Let us hope it does not come to that."

    Well it didnt and the case ended well for one party and not so well for the other and we were excused duty for 2 years so that was also ok.

    I've thought of that case over the past 40 years and then the other night I was at dinner with some visiting law types and one distinguished somewhat pompous learnèd cousnsel used the very same phrase,

    "I tell you, I once defended a client whose guilt was so obvious the judge could have summed up for the defence and still my client would have been looking at 10 to 12 in the slammer."

    Afterwards, I told him *my* story and memory of the phrase - i had no idea if it's a legal cliché - and he fixed me an odd look that had me wondering, was he one of the young counsels on the bus that night who so liked the judge's imagery that he toadily adopted it as his own and has been using it ever since to the extent that, here in Corfu, it finally came full circle. I do hope so.

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