Tuesday, June 10, 2008

British Justice

As part of my research I made my way to the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Courts) to watch a trial. I had a number to choose from, but none of them rang any bells. So I chose Courtroom #1 because I'd heard that it was most Victorian in architecture. After being patted down and run through a metal detector, I hiked up three flights of stairs to the area where the spectators wait and then into the courtroom itself. I settled onto the wooden bench thinking to myself how uncomfortable this was going to be in a little bit. (Photo at left by Nevilley from Wikipedia 6/14/04). Why I didn't take my own photo is explained in the next paragraph.

A British courtroom isn't laid out like ours. The defendant sits in the dock which faces the judge. He does not sit at a table in front of the judge with his attorney. The defence (British spelling) and the prosecutor sit to the right of the defendant, the jury to the left. In America we have a lawyer. In Britain they have two types of attorneys -- a solicitor (who does not plead cases in front of the court) and a barrister (who does). In this case the appropriate folks were wigged and gowned. The spectators sit above and behind the defence and prosecuting barristers. The judge is an active participant in these proceedings, not just a moderator between the defence and prosecutor. The judge will sum up the case at the end, adding his own thoughts on the presentation of both defence and prosecution as compared to our system when the the judge instructs the jury to make an unbiased opinion and leaves it at that. In this particular case spectators were not allowed to take notes. Nor was I allowed to bring in a cell phone, camera or any large bag (which are restrictions for all courtrooms in the Old Bailey).

I quickly realized why there were a number of others in the spectators' galley and why none of them had gone into any of the other three courtrooms. Courtroom #1 was the scene of the first day of the retrial of Barry George, convicted in the 1999 murder of BBC celebrity Jill Dando. This is a weird case. Initially the police thought Ms. Dando's death was a contract hit and then later they settled on Mr. George who has a history of mental issues that involve stalking of celebrities and local women. There are a number of theories about this case involving international assassinations no less. The question is whether Mr. George (with an IQ of 76) is capable of planning such a cold-blooded execution.

There were eight women, four men in the jury. They were told to expect to be in court for the next 6-8 weeks. I listened to the Crown Prosecutor's opening remarks and the beginning of his case. The jury receive two huge (4") binders full of material, another 1" binder and a bound set of 11" x 17" pages. They had TONS of stuff to go through, all information from the first trial.

Alas, we did not get to any witness testimony or anything of that nature which is exactly what I wanted to experience. I suspect I'll just have to go back to the States and have Netflix send me a few Rumpole of the Bailey DVD's. However, I did enjoy being a spectator at such a notable trial.

This afternoon I returned to the hotel, took a quick nap and then grabbed my camera and went for a long walk from Victoria Station to Trafalgar Square. This took me past Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Houses o'Parliament, Big Ben, the Clarence Pub (which stands just outside the street that once led to Scotland Yard. I was going to eat at the The Clarence, a pub that was there during the 1880's near the entrance to Scotland Yard, but the prices were designed for someone on a government salary. Of course Scotland Yard (as in the police establishment) is no longer there. It was moved to Victoria Embankment in 1890 and dubbed New Scotland Yard. Then in 1967 New (New) Scotland Yard was built on Victoria and Broadway Streets. I do want to get a photo of the second Scotland Yard if possible. It just depends if I get back that way or not.

I finally made my way to the Salisbury, that gorgeous Victorian pub we visited last October. This time I was armed with a digital camera that could handle the inside shots and so here's what the place looks like with its ornate cut glass and wood. Their Roast Beef dinner was excellent and overly filling.

The photo does not do this place justice. Ignoring all the booze bottles, check out the cut glass panels in the background and the red tin ceiling. If you ever get a chance to visit London, go see this pub (St. Martin's Lane just north of Trafalgar Square.) It's worth the hike.

Tuesday consisted of visiting the Royal Courts of Justice (the civil courts) and listening to a pleading regarding an appeals on behalf someone suing Random House. This is not riveting stuff, but it was still fascinating to see how the process works as compared to us. Like the U.S., everything moves at half speed. The Royal Courts consist of no less than 80+ courtrooms and the place is like an elaborate stone rabbit warren. Truly stunning architecture but photos are not allowed inside. I could tote the camera in along with my messenger bag and cell phone, but no photos. And if the cell phone rings heaven help you. So I turned it off and stuffed it in the bottom of the bag.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Ripper Exhibit in the Docklands and lunch with a delightful British friend. This is a day I've truly been anticipating.

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