I’ve always been fascinated by those found not guilty in a court case and the impact this has on their future life. Do you ever recover from that moment when the cell door slams and you are alone with your thoughts and at the mercy of the creaking UK Criminal Justice System?
Growing up, I always planned to be a journalist and my work experience at school was with the local paper. Over 25 years later I distinctly recall my second morning at the Hertfordshire Mercury which involved my first ever visit to the Magistrates Court. In those pre-social media days I was unaware that the first person I would see in the dock was someone I knew from the sixth-form of my school. Let’s call him Peter. Although he was a couple of years older, I knew Peter a bit and we would say Hi when we met at school or socially. But at court this wasn’t the Peter I knew from school who captained the cricket team, oozed charisma and was a bit of a hero. After a night in the cells he looked a bit of a mess, the swagger was gone and he was clearly struggling to both hold back tears and meet the eyes of his parents, who were huddled together in the public gallery.
Post Office Raid
It transpired that Peter and two mates had been overheard talking in a pub the day before about carrying out a raid on a post office. The eavesdropper had reported them to the police who had rounded up the three young men and put them in the cells for the night. Their solicitor told the Magistrates that the boys were messing about and had no intention of actually doing anything criminal. But the magistrates weren’t having it and the three were sent back to jail. As they went, Peter briefly turned to look at his parents and I can still clearly picture the haunted, terrified look on his face.
A few days later the three were released without charge. When I saw Peter in school afterwards and in various bars over the years he never looked me in the eye or said Hello again. I guess he just wanted to forget all about it. He never got in any further trouble with the police and I didn’t ever have the opportunity to chat with him about whether he and his mates were just messing around or were serious.
It must have been pretty tough for Peter at seventeen in a small community with everyone knowing what had happened, speculating about his guilt and whispering behind his back. Of course, not at the same extreme level as people like Tom Stephens, whose picture was all over the papers and news bulletins after being arrested – and released without charge – over the deaths of five sex workers in Ipswich. Or Christopher Jeffries, who suffered so terribly after being all but accused by the media of killing Jo Yeates (listen to my podcast on this story, episode 91), but still a nasty experience for him.
I still sometimes reflect how this experience might have shaped Peter and his future life. I wonder if 25 years on, he sees his brush with the law as an irrelevance, or something that fundamentally changed his life.