Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Jefferies, Justice and Juries

The legend that is Malpoet has been a source of inspiration and education in the relatively short time in which I have known him. Long may that continue, and I thank the man upstairs for the day we met. Recently, Mal and I had something of a joust on the subject of jury trials, and I'd concede that in all likelihood my opponent won that particular encounter on points. At first I believed that this owed more than anything to my argument for retaining juries being made on what could be termed as a bad day at the office (my piece on the Joanne Fraill conviction was probably not my finest hour).

However, as today wore on and I read of the prejudicial press coverage towards Chris Jefferies (Attorney General Dominic Grieve believes that the Daily Mirror and the Sun may have been in contempt of court and I struggle to see exactly how they weren't), it dawned upon me that saying, "I believe in jury trials and always will" was, as Malpoet pointed out, pretty fucking stupid. I lost that argument not because my efforts were not the best I could come up with, but for the simple reason that the opposing case was substantially stronger than mine. He was right, I was wrong, and it's probably time to explain what prompted me to change my mind.

Two things should first be established - firstly Vincent Tabak, who has been charged with the murder of Joanna Yeates, has been found guilty of precisely nothing, and remains innocent until proven otherwise. The existence of due process will not prevent the rush of those who wish to see him executed before a judicial ball is kicked, but then that's part of the problem. What is now universally agreed upon is that Jefferies, Yeates' former landlord, was "entirely innocent" in Grieve's own words. This puts the defamatory, negative and dangerously presumptuous reporting that his arrest received in a more damning light, although of course nobody should be 'fair game' to the gutter press until their guilt has been established beyond a reasonable doubt.

The vile witchhunt over the period of December 31st and January 1st by the Sun and the Daily Mirror in particular is said to have run a "substantial risk of serious prejudice" had Jefferies ever been charged and forced to stand trial. Many thanks to http://politicalscrapbook.net/ for reproducing some snippets from their pieces in such an accessible form. It's worth looking at a few of them, taking the ones from the Daily Mirror first:-

A strict authoritarian known as “blue hair” or “comb-over” for his unusual hairstyle, his eccentric manner and long-term bachelor status sparked unfounded school gossip that he was gay.

Maybe he was a 'strict authoritarian' and I can't say they're the types I'm likely to hit it off with, but then again most teachers came across that way when I was young and just wanted to do my own thing. By their reasoning that having a comb-over makes you a murderer, it begs the question as to why Bobby Charlton wasn't hauled in for questioning once Jefferies was released, and I don't know about you, but at my school there was a rumour that all the teachers were gay, even the ones who were married to each other. Quite why they included this little 'fact' in the story anyway escapes me, and just shows the immaturities that they assume to exist (rightly or wrongly) amongst their readership.

“Mr Jefferies was also famous for his utter dislike of sports. At boarding schools everyone has to chip in and teachers would often referee rugby or football matches, but not him. “He made it perfectly clear from the start that that was not his scene.”

There you go - hates sports = murderer. Ach well, best not invite the kid brother round again...

Recalling “nosey neighbour” Mr Jefferies yesterday, the former male tenant, 39, said: “My wife wasn’t keen on him at all and he made her feel uncomfortable. “He always seemed to be hanging about. If we left the flat he was always outside … On several occasions he even entered our flat unannounced. “He acted surprised and left when my wife confronted him. It was intrusive, he looks very strange as well, so it did make my wife feel uncomfortable.”

Ok, probably the first serious and potentially damaging item here - though it looks more like oddball behaviour than anything seriously criminal, this allegation certainly paints a picture of Jefferies that is at best awkward and could of course be interpreted in a more sinister fashion. That he has the look of a mad professor is irrelevant in isolation, but if the story is true one can see how that appearance might add to the general sense of discomfort. The key aspect of this claim, however, is that there is nothing in here that is admissable in court. While a reader may form a negative impression of Jefferies then end up on the jury in any potential trial, the man himself would never have received the opportunity to deny it, nor to defend or explain himself. Over to those cunning linguists of the Sun

Former students claimed yesterday that the blue-rinse, long-haired bachelor, who police arrested yesterday, used to make sleazy comments and invite them to his home. One recalled: “He was very flamboyant. We were convinced he was gay. “You didn’t want him to come near you.”

Again, Jefferies would never get the chance to deny or give his version of the story that he made 'sleazy' comments and invited kids to his gingerbread house - more recollections of childish immaturity only serve to churn up further smoke. Of course it turned out there was absolutely no fire.

“He was a stickler for discipline and very traditional. He used to get very angry and shout and throw books and pens across the room. He kept repeating words in an odd way.”

It was the 70s and the cane was still widely used - was a story of that nature particularly uncommon? I'd venture it was nothing especially unusual, although let's just be grateful that this style of teaching isn't allowed anymore.

The former student said eccentric English teacher Jefferies made them watch films about Nazi death camps and scared some children with his macabre fascination. He added: “Jefferies just wanted to show us death. He was obsessed with it.”

I was 'made' to watch a film about Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps at school as well. I tended to find you were 'made' to do a lot of things back then - it was certainly an experience I don't look back on with any fondness but hey we all probably learned at least one useful piece of information along the way. Maybe we should check under the patio of my old history teacher's house for bodies? Or perhaps we should dismiss this 'evidence' of Jefferies' guilt as the errant bollocks that it is?

Neighbours have speculated that Jefferies was gay. But the woman, who has now left Bristol, said: “I thought he was bisexual. I felt he liked to control women and he was dominant towards them. If he’d had any type of relationship it would have been with a man.”

Speculation, conjecture, and further fucking brainless journalism on the part of the Sun, just as the Mirror's raid on Jefferies' garbage can stunk to high heaven. What makes the blood boil about this type of 'scoop' is the way it represents a clear attempt by the newspapers involved to corner the market of due process. No charges have been brought, no trial date has been announced, yet the judge and jury of tomorrow's chip paper have decided that the man is guilty, so HANG HIM, HANG HIM , FUCKING HANG HIM. Of course the odds of any actual jury including readers of two of Britain's most popular rags are not exactly miniscule, and there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that had the case against the innocent Jefferies ever wound up in court, he would have been fucking toast (yes that's three fucks in a single paragraph - this has got me fucking wound up).

Chris Jefferies might be an oddball, a loner and an unusual character, but it is clear as a bell that he had the square root of fuck all to do with Joanna Yeates' death. The pressure on the authorities to stick someone, anyone behind bars in such cases is overwhelming, and had there been the opportunity to try their luck with the first 'suspect' they came across who is to say they wouldn't have given it a shot? Jefferies is pursuing his own civil cases against various media outlets while he looks to make a 'fresh start'. I sincerely hope that he wrings every last penny out of the bastards that he can, the poor fella...

The problem we face is that while legislation could probably be passed to restrict what the print and broadcast media can talk about regarding ongoing cases, the availability of widespread misinformation online means that you would only be solving a small part of the problem. Policing the internet not only sounds like something terribly draconian that I'd want no part of, but is also practically an impossibility when one thinks of the size and scale of the web along with the proliferation of rumour and innuendo streams that reside there. Besides which, I often thought that online forums served as a decent outlet, a source of therapy if you will for fantasists and nutjobs. Leave them to their Revolution Cyberzone, where they can unveil their plan to blow someone or something up - the chances are in most cases it will scratch their itch and prevent them from doing it for real.

The conclusion that I'm fast coming to is that my instinctive support for juries was misguided and failed to take account of the changing world around us. This position was not so much one of genuine enthusiasm and instead owed more to fear of any inquisitorial method rapidly becoming politicised, corrupt and dangerous. Any discussion as to exactly how any new system should look is one we can have in the comments here or on another night, and I'd be interested in your thoughts on the alternatives. However, what this case demonstrates most clearly to me is that the jury trial is no longer fit for purpose now we have a barrage of prejudicial and damaging misinformation coming from the mainstream media and online.

Chris Jefferies would not have stood a prayer in front of a jury if only the 'evidence' against him been deemed to have passed some sort of credibility threshold, and we might well have been looking at a modern day Stefan Kiszko. Anyone who has researched that case will understand why the thought of anything like it happening again sends a chill down the spine - a completely innocent man, found guilty by a jury partly on flimsy and fabricated evidence, but principally as a result of being 'a bit weird'. It is also disturbing to muse as to the number of innocent people railroaded into prison by the authorities using such a technique...

As soon as we can agree upon and establish an alternative that is impartial, free from political control and protects key the key elements of the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt, then it will be time to end the conscription of jurors and jury trials themselves. With that in mind, Joanne Fraill does not deserve to be in prison for what was an act of serious naivety rather than anything deliberately malicious, and if anyone was upset by my initial suggestion to the contrary, then I was wrong and sincerely apologise. Malpoet's observation on this case was also right - that juries are only as good as the people of whom they are comprised, meaning that the guilt or innocence of a defendant can often be left in the hands of those either too lazy or too dumb to understand the evidence. Some of them of course may also read the Daily Mirror or the Sun, in which case they probably decided he or she was guilty before they entered the courtroom...

Take care and we'll do something a bit lighter tomorrow...


  1. Fascinating piece. You might be interested in my article on the subject: http://dasteepsspeaks.blogspot.com/2011/07/appearances-are-deceptive.html

  2. Thanks Matt - checked yours out too and it hits a few nails squarely on the head...