Rolf Harris should have been given a retrial

I don’t know whether Rolf Harris is in fact a serial sex offender and last week’s judgment by the Court of Appeal leaves the matter in a thoroughly unsatisfactory state.

Before looking at the judgment in detail let’s put a few misconceptions to bed.

First of all, it gives no support to those who suggest that Rolf Harris is the victim of some sort of police or CPS conspiracy. It would be quite extraordinary if there had been and there is no evidence of it. It is true that there was a failure in the disclosure process. Some very old, and as it turned out rather significant, convictions of an important witness were not disclosed at the trial. They were not disclosed because the police had not found them. That does not suggest a conspiracy, it suggests at most a lack of diligence in seeking out old records. Faults in disclosure are endemic in our creaking justice system. Even today, when criminal records are fully computerised mistakes in criminal records are far from unusual. The relevant records dated from the 1960s, long before computerisation, and were found by the police on microfiche after the trial and before the appeal. It is hardly likely that they would have done so had they been part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth.

There are other criticisms of the police which appear in the judgment, or are at least suggested by it; in particular a certain lack of enthusiasm in looking for exculpatory evidence, but there is certainly nothing to suggest a wilful attempt to stitch up an innocent man. That is not to excuse the police of all blame: a lack of diligence in a case as serious as this is a worrying matter, but it is a great deal less worrying than evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Secondly, the judgment gives no support to some of the unpleasant and unfair comment that has circulated about the original prosecution counsel Sasha Wass QC. There is no criticism of her whatever in the judgment, and no reason to think that she did anything other than a proper and professional job in prosecuting Mr Harris.

Thirdly, anyone searching the internet for information about the case may have come across the information that one of Harris’s jurors was a member of the Metropolitan Police. That is true, but it is not something that featured in the appeal. Opinions differ on whether police officers (or for that matter lawyers and judges) should be able to sit on juries, but the law is clear: they are unless they have some close connection with the investigation. (For what it is worth I have changed my mind on this issue after representing a man at a trial at which the serving police officer (whom I had originally and unsuccessfully asked the judge to exclude) turned out to be the only member of the jury with the wit to notice that the foreman, confused by the judge’s complicated “route to a verdict” direction, had accidentally returned a guilty verdict when they had in fact meant it to be not guilty).

The 12 charges of indecent assault against Mr Harris were based on the evidence of 4 different women. Evidence was also given of alleged criminal behaviour towards a further 5 women or girls which, because it took place abroad, could not form the basis of any charges in this country. The evidence of the 5 “extra-territorial” women was only summarised in the judgment and we have no way of knowing for sure whether the jury believed all or any of them, although given their unanimous verdicts of guilty of every count on the indictment it seems very likely that they were inclined to disbelieve anything Mr Harris said. Continue reading “Rolf Harris should have been given a retrial”

The Court of Appeal was wrong to refuse to hear the appeal of a man it believed to be innocent.

Last Friday the Court of Appeal refused to allow a Mr Mehmet Ordu to appeal against his conviction. Nothing very unusual about that. Every year hundreds of would-be appellants are refused leave to appeal. The peculiar thing about this case, though, is that everyone involved – Mr Ordu himself of course, but also the prosecution and most remarkably the three judges who heard his case, all accept that he was in all probability innocent of an offence for which he has now served a 9 month sentence. The judges nevertheless decided that there would be “no injustice” in allowing his wrongful conviction to stand. Most people might think that a wrongful conviction demands a remedy, and the obvious remedy – even if nothing else can be done – is to quash the conviction. The Court of Appeal thought that there was no injustice in leaving a wrongful conviction in place. It was a very bad decision. Continue reading “The Court of Appeal was wrong to refuse to hear the appeal of a man it believed to be innocent.”

Never mind rape myths, the criminal justice system is built on even more fundamental myths

These days no prosecutor is considered properly trained until they have attended a course to warn them sternly of the dangers of believing “myths and stereotypes” about sexual offences. The CPS website lists 10 such myths (defined as “a commonly held belief, idea or explanation that is not true”), including, for example:

Rape occurs between strangers in dark alleys” (obviously it occasionally does, but the myth is that it only or mainly occurs in that way).

Or

You Can Tell if She’s ‘Really’ Been Raped by How She Acts” (when, as the CPS correctly points out, reactions to rape are “highly varied and individual.”)

It is all to the good that any myth should be expunged by the cauterising effect of truth, but there are even more fundamental assumptions underlying the whole criminal justice system. They are these:

  1. Jurors can safely rely on the memory of an honest witness;
  1. Jurors can safely assess when a witness’s memory is mistaken;
  1. Jurors can safely assess when a witness is lying.

Unfortunately each one of these assumptions is a myth: a “commonly held belief that is not true.” Continue reading “Never mind rape myths, the criminal justice system is built on even more fundamental myths”

If you want to be sure of staying out of prison, don’t ask the judge to suck your d***

In any contested drug case there is always a drugs “expert”. They are police officers who have worked on the drugs squad for a year or two and they have then generally completed an intensive course on the uses of controlled drugs in the United Kingdom. Thus qualified as expert witnesses, unlike ordinary witnesses they are allowed togive their opinions on drugs matters. They can say, for example, that such and such a quantity of drugs is, in their experience, inconsistent with personal use, or that scales, deal lists, cling film and small plastic bags are typical accoutrements of the drug dealer.

They will generally place a value on any drugs that have been found, and the more zealous ones take a pride in calculating the hundreds of thousands of pounds of profit that could theoretically be realised by cutting and selling any drugs found “at street level.” They almost always point out, in a rather snide way that you are likely to be short changed by drug dealers because “they are not known for their generosity” (an observation that in my experience holds equally true for police drugs experts). Despite the vast profits that are theoretically available, there is often a stark contrast between the miserable, sordid and poverty-stricken lives led by the drug-sozzled dealers that it is usually my lot to represent, and the vast sums of money that the police experts calculate they could be earning.

Part of the reason for that contrast no doubt comes down to the peculiar economics of drug dealing. Certainly there are vast profits to be made, but seldom – at least in my experience – by the dealers towards the bottom of the drugs pyramid. Whether that is because they are always in debt, because they smoke away their profits, or because, as happens surprisingly often, someone else simply nicks their stock, I don’t know. But in some cases they fail to make money, or at least to do so consistently, simply because they are very, very stupid. Continue reading “If you want to be sure of staying out of prison, don’t ask the judge to suck your d***”