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Stoking the flames

Today I wish to comment upon the news from Bristol yesterday that England cricketer Ben Stokes had been found not guilty of affray after a seven-day trial and before doing so feel it necessary to begin with a few scatter-gun points.

Firstly, of course, every man is innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Secondly, a jury has duly found Stokes not guilty – and that is the verdict that will go down in history. It doesn’t matter what I – or any man or woman in the street – thinks from their armchair-but-opinionated position of having watched daily reports upon the goings-on at court, or reading reports, or even viewing the various items of CCTV camera footage that has come into the public domain.

Thirdly, there’s a strange phenomenon that exists with the sphere of human nature whenever it comes to celebrity (in whatever form). Sometimes the norms that would apply to ordinary members of the public like you and me do not necessarily apply when celebrities are involved in legal cases.

Fourthly, that although I retain a tenuous connection with matters of the criminal law it is nearly forty years since I last practised it in a professional capacity.

Fifthly and beyond – these opinions being freely offered by old hands ‘back in the day’ and taken on board by me as a youngster feeling my way into the profession:

  • Next after knowing his own case, the most important thing any lawyer needs to know is his opponent’s;
  • All lawyers are normal fallible human beings and can make mistakes;
  • Never under-estimate the value of keeping open the opportunity of reaching a settlement, i.e. rather than going to court (trial), because – once things get to trial – you lose all ability to control what is happening and, however strong your case seemed beforehand, nobody should ever be surprised at any outcome (repeat, literally any outcome) that comes to pass.  

A few weeks back the BBC drama A Very English Scandal – starring Hugh Grant, – brought the infamous the Jeremy Thorpe conspiracy to murder trial back into the public eye.

As a young barrister at the time, with a pal, when the trial proper was on I used to plie my trade in magistrates courts around the metropolis and then hurry back into central London in order to sit in the court and follow the Thorpe trial proceedings.

I’m going to be honest. Despite the above-mentioned caveats, as a proverbial ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ I found yesterday’s Ben Stokes ‘not guilty’ verdict difficult to accept or understand, simply because of the CCTV footage that was so readily available to view.

To my mind it showed a number of men – some or all of them affected by drink – arguing and then brawling on the public highway.

Frankly, if I’d been a police officer and come across the scene [admittedly I’m talking ‘bucket chemistry’ fantasy here and not real life] I might have dealt with the situation in a much more summary and ‘clip round the ear’ manner.

I’d have arrested the lot, taken them all back to the station, banged them up overnight and the next morning – when the drunk ones had sobered up – given them a damned good talking to, charged them with something … and (when due process had taken its course) send them on their way with £100 fines each and fleas in their ear.

And nobody – participant, any lawyer representing any of them, anybody walking by at the time – would have batted an eyelid.

But sometimes odd trial verdicts are thrown up, especially when people in the public eye are involved. Stuff happens.

One of the persistent rumours at the time of the Thorpe Trial was that ‘the Establishment’ had deliberately hamstrung the prosecution in order to protect ‘one of its own’ (Thorpe) and most probably others who connected with him.

How? Well – it was suggested that, instead of charging whomever with ‘attempted murder’, the prosecution decided (or was ordered?) to charge the accused with ‘conspiracy to murder’, a much more difficult offence to bring home (prove to the satisfaction of a criminal court/jury).

The inference? Well, the obvious one that by charging those involved in the Thorpe Trial with ‘conspiracy to murder’, the Establishment was doing its best to ‘load the dice’ in the defendants’ favour … and thereby get them off.

I’m casting no aspersions here at all, I hasten to add, but wouldn’t it have been far easier for the prosecution in the Stokes case to obtain a conviction by charging whomever with an ‘actual bodily harm’ offence?

Well, possibly … or even probably.

I’m just saying …

The fact is that Ben Stokes, who yesterday was added to the England squad for the Third Test against India starting at the weekend, is not yet quite ‘out of the woods’ for two reasons.

Firstly, an official ‘independent’ cricket disciplinary committee is going to address the issue of what (if any) disciplinary action might yet be taken against him.

And secondly, never mind the jury’s ‘Not Guilty’ verdict yesterday, the infamous ‘court of public opinion’ [see my reference above to my own reaction to watching the CCTV camera footage of the incident] will take a great deal of time to forgive and forget the evidence of their own eyes.

To finish, then, here’s a link to the article by Josh White and Tom Payne – detailing the mistakes and cock-ups (accidental or deliberate, as some conspiracy theorists might contend) made by the prosecution in the Stokes trial – as appears today upon the website of the – DAILY MAIL