I was a juror on the trial at Sheffield Crown Court, back in October last year of the eight men accused of a range of sexual crimes against four teenage girls. I am sure you will recall that five were found guilty of at least one charge against them. This and other cases have recently been reported in the press and several prominent politicians and others are now commenting on the wider picture that is emerging, predominantly that the vast majority of offenders are Pakistani men.
Some background about why I feel the need to comment so fully: I was Director of Victim Support Sheffield ten years ago, having previously worked over ten years for Victim Support in North London. I am familiar with the facilities for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and how the video-link system works and have supported several victims through giving evidence in Court. I have also provided extensive training for people in how to support victims of serious crime and this has included several police officers.
After a brief introduction by the prosecuting barrister, we were shown several video recordings detailing several hours of the victims’ interviews that had taken place between 20 and 24 months previously. Some of the audio quality was very poor and we strained to hear much of it. On several occasions Court was adjourned while transcripts of the interview (available to barristers already) were prepared for us.
I am sure you are aware in such a case how vital the presentation of evidence is and this process of bad audio, malfunctioning equipment requiring frequent breaks (while the victims were in attendance) did a disservice to everyone and must have had a cost implication because of the amount of Court time wasted.
We were trying to piece together which of the alleged crimes had been committed on these girls by which of the eight men on trial. All we had to start with was the indictment sheet which was a merely list of charges against names.
The girls were questioned and the interviewers were clearly finding it difficult to get the information from the victims without adding their own words. We had no background, not even an outline of which allegation the interview was in response to. We struggled to make sense of the many interviews of two of the victims and which of the 23 offences they related to.
I understand that there are procedures in place so that victims cannot be ‘led’ but some of these interviews sounded so clinical and disconnected for much of the time. I found myself questioning the ability of some of the interviewers who seemed to be floundering out of their depth. For example, asking multiple questions of the victim (and hence confusing them) or just saying, “right, right, right” in response to the victim was to the point where it became monotonous and annoying.
Can I ask what kind of training and ongoing these interviewers receive and on what criteria they are selected, particularly as their job is perhaps the most important in the entire process?
The cross-examinations after the week or so of video interviews didn’t do much help us to better understand the situation or the victims’ background and often resulted in ‘closing down’ the dialogue when it became uncomfortable or confrontational. It must have been so difficult for those girls to follow through after all the elapsed time and I feel that somehow they deserved better of everyone. I think it fair to say that it wasn’t until the victim impact statements were summarised after conviction, that the life changing impact of these crimes on the girls became clear.
Over the ensuing weeks, we began to make sense of who was accused of having done what to whom and it began to make more sense. The prosecution finished their case and each of the defendants’ barristers took their turn in outlining their client’s case for the defence. Some chose not to testify and we were each able to build an impression of our understanding of the evidence presented.
At the summing up, the prosecution barrister took a little over an hour to summarise the case for the Prosecution and then each of the barristers for the defence took a familiar amount of time on their client. It felt as if we were being brow-beaten by the defence at times as the same messages were presented in subtly different flavours. It was at this point we jurors were treated to some excellent speaking, references were made to Greek tragedies, the Boulevards of Paris and the Judge even seemed to endorse his favoured orators.
I began to feel sorrow for the defendants having to sit through what I found to be some kind of game of ‘barristerial’ one-upmanship being played out in front of people who had their freedom riding on the outcome of the trial, and their friends and family in the gallery.
After the Judge’s direction, it was our turn to deliberate. I think we took a whole week to decide all the charges. Some were easier than others and I felt lucky to have the expertise and considered viewpoints of my fellow jurors to help me. Not once did the race of the defendants or the victims become an issue.
We were trying to recall evidence from the victims that we had heard in mid-September and it was now November. We only had our memories and the notes that some of us had taken during the trial to assist us. If we wanted to clarify anything, it meant going into Court to ask the Judge. Many of us felt that it would have been so useful and only fair, to redress the balance, by having had access to the victims’ video interviews or some form of summary once again, at the close of the evidence.
In the end, I feel that justice was done despite the process which still favours the defendant (sometimes 8 to 1). With better interviewing and more dots being joined up for we jurors at the beginning of the process, I feel that better justice could have been done for everyone.