‘Icould kill you!’
Now how many times have you heard someone say that’.
Said it myself recently when a clumsy colleague dropped a 200-pound loaf of bread on my toe while I was making jam butties for my bevy of Vestal Virgins.
In fact I was heard to say it very loudly on one occasion during a rugby match when an opposing forward reached for my genitals as we emerged from a loose and clumsy scrum, neither of us having any idea where the ball was or even where it was likely to be.
In this case, the chap was exonerated after buying me a pint in the clubhouse after the game.
But loose talk is not so easily dismissed. A Second World War poster proclaimed, ‘Loose Talk Can Cost Lives.’
And down the centuries it has.
The total number of wrongful convictions in Britain since the Norman’s introduced the jury system is unknown. But as a sample of how more modern criminal charges can go wrong, between 1989 and 1999 almost 8500 convictions were overturned and between 2007 and 2017 84 serious crime convicts have been pardoned after wrongful convictions were recorded.
Thousands more can be added after Magistrates’ Courts get it wrong and minor felons have their charges dismissed by a higher court.
Records from the Dark Ages are notoriously slim so public records don’t really begin until the 1660s.
Those impacting on Sussex though, gain no real notoriety until 1952 when Derek Bentley was hanged for the murder of a policeman in Croydon.
I was a second former at school when Bentley went to the gallows, but I remember clearly the public debate about his guilt, based very much on him screaming at his co criminal Christopher Craig ‘Let him have it.’
The prosecution claimed the 16-year-old Craig shot dead Constable Sidney Miles as a result of Bentley’ command, while Bentley said he meant that Craig should give up the gun as they had been ‘nicked’
Bentley’s conviction was overturned in 1998.
Didn’t help Bentley much. He’d taken the big drop some 46 years before.
But there is perhaps no better example that ‘loose talk costs lives’ than the Bentley execution.
There have been countless cases of wrongful convictions in and around Lewes over the years, geographically creeping towards the County Town where the Assizes has existed for a thousand years and the Crown Court replacing it in 1972, is still located on the High Street.
Famous miscarriages of justice have taken place in Guildford, Southampton, Portsmouth and Hastings in the last century. But it was not until the 21st century that a low-profile case nudged Lewes into the limelight. Even though there were 84 wrongful capital crime convictions overturned between 2007-2017.it was in 2009 that a local case came to public attention.
A Newhaven man, Jamie Sneddon was jailed for 21 months in 2000 for unlawfully wounding a Lewes magistrate.
Sneddon’s conviction was based on the evidence of the man he had allegedly assaulted. Subsequently, Ian James was found to have lied twice in various cases he was involved with as a magistrate. He had committed perjury.
Long after his release, Sneddon realised the man he was dealing with in a business transaction was James and taped a conversation in which James admitted lying. The Court of Appeal found that Sneddon’s conviction was mainly based on James’s testimony and exonerated Sneddon of the charges. Although expecting a healthy compensation sum, Sneddon said the injustice he had suffered had affected his life forever.
Many cases of miscarriage of justice lie with identification, bias and gossip. Barry George went down for life for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando in 1999 before being found to be a victim of a miscarriage of justice, while Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950 for the murder of his wife and daughter before the notorious killer John Reginald Christie was found to be the real killer at the now infamous dwelling 10 Rillington Place in London. He hanged in 1953 for the murder of eight people, among them his wife. The bodies were found concealed in the building, in garden graves and boarded up alcoves.
I’ve been to the site of that murder, actually, Christie was found to be a serial killer, and went to the gallows but there is little there to indicate that the macabre post-war murders ever took place. The bulldozers moved in after Richard Attenborough moved his cameras out when making a docudrama of the case. Evans won a posthumous pardon in 1966, but it did him little good from the grave, executed by the state for something he didn’t do.
Often these mistakes come from overzealous police or the public howling for blood. But in the case of the M25 Three, it was simply bias and prejudice. They were jailed in 1990 for life for murder and robbery. All three were black but witness statements that at least one miscreant was white and in some statements that they were all white was ignored. It wasn’t until 2000 their convictions were finally overturned.
Evidence in a criminal case is often contradictory. I once slapped the back of a man in a Lewes pub whom I’d known all my life. Except I hadn’t known this man for seconds, but he was a ‘dead ringer’ for my friend. Luckily, he hadn’t committed a crime, or I could have easily given evidence that he was located in that pub at that time and got the wrong man. The Metropolitan police in the last decade or so showed a poster with a black man and a white man running one in front of the other. The poster asked, ‘which one is the thief’? highlighting that often discrimination, sometimes buried deep inside, can support false charges.
Gossip and rumours have supported all sorts of false charges down the ages. French King Louis XV was accused in 1750 of stealing children from the streets so he could avoid leprosy by bathing in their blood. A decade later, London was vacated on rumours of a massive earthquake and during the Black Death of 1321, 5000 Jews were burned alive for allegedly poisoning wells. American financial markets lost $130 billion in 2013 after a fake story circulated that President Obama had been blown up.
But the most famous case close to home was that of John Bodkin Adams, who practised in Eastbourne. 160 of his patients died under suspicious circumstance but the police only acted after rumours and innuendo became so strong that they felt obliged to charge Adams with the death of a widow, Edith Morell. She and many other patients left Adams substantial assets in their wills, including a Rolls Royce.
Nurses who looked after the patient night and day fanned the flames of the rumours and Adams went to trial. It took a jury just 45 minutes to find him not guilty. The main defence was that the evidence was hearsay, based on rumours and the faulty memories of the four nurses. But when Adams defence produced notebooks in the nurses handwriting written while they were tending Mrs. Morell, much of it conflicted with the evidence given in retrospect by the same nurses under cross-examination.
Hearsay had been sent roundly packing.
But aren’t I glad I’m a journalist and a bit of an outspoken one?
We Hacks can make an adverse comment on issues as long as they are matters of public interest, under a defence called ‘fair comment’. But if you are not a journo, be careful. You can’t slag off anyone unless you can prove what you say is true. Otherwise, no matter how bursting you are to ‘have a public go’ at someone, don’t accuse them of a crime, even a tiny weeny little itsy-bitsy bit of a crime. You can’t accuse anyone of having a contagious disease, make negative comments about someone’s business or accuse him/her of cheating or adultery.
Now I think I know someone in Lewes who’s cheating on his wife, has a ramshackle and sham business, has mumps and who I’m sure has rigged his income tax.
He’s also very well known. So as a journalist I can tell all. But if you’re’ a private citizen keep your lips very tightly zipped, because you just might find yourself in court and no clever lawyer such as Bodkin Adams had, to get you off on acceptable hearsay.
What, I hear you say.? The pubs are likely opening again in July. OK, buy me a pint but make sure I stand at the bar with my jaws tightly clamped together, only opening them to drink the beer.
Yes. Thank you. Mine’s a pint and that’ll do.!
But did you hear about… •