Stepping out of one’s life is terribly healthy, don’t you find? As you know, I’ve been at Her Majesty’s pleasure for the past ten days in the Old Bailey sitting in the juror’s box considering two rather fascinating cases. Having never been in the dock, the visitors’ gallery or the witness box, I was looking forward to walking the halls of the Old Bailey.
The present building is Edwardian though it was extensively remodelled in the 50s after a direct hit during the Blitz in 1941. The New Building, a 1970s annex constructed on the footprint of the notorious Newgate Gaol, is less alluring. Every week, roughly a hundred new jurors are inducted to serve in the eighteen courtrooms.
The induction was held in the oak-lined Court No 1 that looked an awful lot smaller than the replica set for the 1957 Billy Wilder film Witness for the Prosecution. Witness is one of Agatha Christie’s most serpentine plots and is set entirely in the Old Bailey. The film, co-starring Charles Laughton as prosecuting council, Tyrone Power as the accused and Marlene Dietrich as his wife, cuts away from the courtroom repeatedly but it is the scenes in Court No 1 that thrill.
The set-up is masterful. Power, Leonard Vole, is accused of murdering a love-struck spinster called Emily French for her money. His German wife, Christine Vole, makes it perfectly clear to Laughton’s QC Sir Wilfred that she believes her husband is guilty. The plot writhes like an adder leading many movie buffs – myself included – to believe that Witness is directed by Hitchcock not Wilder. If you guess the denouement then you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.
My first case was held in the New Wing of the Old Bailey that was more reminiscent of 1970s television drama Crown Court than Witness for the Prosecution. I was absolutely mesmerised by the clerk of the court who sat directly in front of the judge. She was not dissimilar to Amy Lamé the cabaret artiste and spent the entire first day rummaging in an orange fake fur pencil case that seemed incongruous in the context of the Central Criminal Court.
It became apparent over the ten days that the Old Bailey is all about the pens. Our first judge could twiddle his Waterman faster than a drum majorette’s baton and prosecuting council underlined his notes with grim determination as if checking the bill at Le Gavroche. Fluorescent marker pens are abundant even though the jury is only trusted with pencils and a plastic cup upon which ‘pencil shavings’ has been written in marker pen.
Case number one was linked to a larger fraud prosecution and was spiced-up considerably by a former X-Factor contestant in the dock accused of money laundering at the bottom of the chain. I don’t think it is appropriate to speak about the case but, suffice to say, he was found guilty and it emerged that the king pins of the fraud had links to IS.
One presumes that council begins with the premise that the jury is not blessed with an abundance of brain cells hence the endless repetition of key pieces of evidence. The money laundering case hinged on the likelihood that the defendant had precisely matched the pattern set by all the other minnows convicted of laundering the dirty loot.
I must admit to liking the theatre of the Central Criminal Court very much. Mr Bowering drew one of his marvellous cartoons of a bewigged and gowned JS with the judge saying ‘very eloquent, Mr Sherwood, but must I remind you that you are only a member of the jury…’.
Truth to tell, I did find myself envying the prosecuting council and thinking ‘I could do that’. I particularly liked the way he wore his wig angled towards his nose so the pig tails sat like a top knot and draped his black robe off the shoulder like Pola Negri in Salome. Our justice system does have immense style salve Ede & Ravenscroft.
My heart sank when the second case proved to be two counts of sexual assault that took place in a Mayfair nightclub. I was rather envious of fellow jurors who had the Balkan arms deal case to consider or the attempted murder with a Samurai sword. But actually the case was worth it for the judge alone. Rotund, sardonic and with an arch of an eyebrow that would have done Dockyard Doris proud, His Lordship was pure pantomime.
Actually, our judge was incredibly courteous towards the jury and fastidious in his summing-up. Again, I don’t think it fair to comment on the case even retrospectively but we the jury thoroughly enjoyed the prosecuting council who bore more than a passing resemblance to Rupert Penry-Jones in Silk. What one wouldn’t give for a look at those briefs…
Anyway, we found the defendant guilty and thus ended my tenure in the Old Bailey. I left the building with a backward glance at the gilded statue of Lady Justice – sword and scales in hand but not blindfolded – that tops the dome above the Bailey. However laborious the process, I think the British justice system is scrupulously fair and I for one felt privileged to serve.
On both juries, we agreed that we had learned something from the process. I particularly liked a phrase that came from the second case: ‘reluctant acquiescence’. It perfectly describes many a decision I have made of late and suggests the subtlety of a call against one’s better judgement. If nothing else, the Old Bailey has taught me not to reluctantly acquiesce and rue the decision.