A bad day in court
When your ex-cleaning lady attempts to murder a neighbour – who is in her late seventies – it is difficult not to be at least a little bit interested. The fact that we were directly involved in the event itself makes it difficult to be disinterested. So, since March 2008, I’ve been following the case.
It was the middle of last year when hearings began in earnest, the accused spending some time in the Caswell Clinic secure unit being assessed for her mental state (a cost of £100,000 per person per year has been mentioned but I have no corroboration of that) but eventually pleading guilty to the charge of attempted murder. Most reported Court of Appeal decisions support sentences of at least 8 years imprisonment for this offence and often much longer. She had also admitted to charges relating to theft and use of the victim’s credit card.
Until yesterday the same judge had heard – at his insistence – every hearing and only agreed to them when the same team of CPS and defendant’s barristers and lawyers could be present. He has adopted – rightly one suspects in view of the possible impact of an appeal against sentencing – a rigorous approach to every aspect, most recently insisting that at the sentencing hearing – to be held yesterday – he would personally hear the expert testimony from both prosecuting and defence psychiatrists. This inevitably built in delays particularly when this summer’s break scuppered an earlier hearing date.
So yesterday was the day. Every one assembled. No absent psychiatrists. All pre-sentencing reports from probation service etc to hand. Because number one court at Cardiff is so old, the judge kindly agreed to relatives and friends of the victim sitting in the jurors’ seats so that we could see and hear clearly what was happening.
Then bombshell. The defence barrister – apparently one of the finest criminal defence lawyers in the country – stood and announced that he, his junior and the accused’s solicitors were all withdrawing from the case. He made it clear that they had not been dismissed but that there were serious problems about them continuing, most of which could not be explained in open court because of client confidentiality. As she had begun (so she said) to recover her memory there was now doubt about the way in which she should be represented. The barrister said he did not ‘think’ she was going to change her plea of guilty.
The judge was clearly in no position to do much more than tell the accused she must appoint a new lawyer (she wants a woman this time) pronto and fix a progress meeting for two weeks time.
It’s now entirely possible, that 18 months after the event, the accused can change her plea and force a full hearing. Had the court proceedings themselves not been delayed by her undoubted lack of co-operation (noted by the judge at earlier hearings) she would by now be in prison serving a lengthy sentence for something she has – at least until now – admitted doing. Instead, in the interests of justice (and I am not one to argue the case against that) she is able to expend yet more taxpayers’ money on a new team of solicitors and barristers who have to start from scratch. It’s most likely they’ll make the same recommendations as the ones who have withdrawn and we’ll be in the same place – not some time soon – probably in 2010.
But, as the judge addressed the court after the accused had been sent out, this was an unsatisfactory state of affairs that will impact all involved.
Yesterday was to have been a marker at least in the process of recovery for the victim. She was beaten repeatedly over the head by a person wielding a claw hammer and left for dead. It was a happy co-incidence that she was discovered before she bled to death, but another ten minutes and the outcome could have been fatal. She has since had eighteen months coming to terms with the horror of it all. Yesterday was no justice for her.
There can be no criticism of anyone involved in the legal process: the judge and legal teams as far I can tell as a simple observer, have been exemplary in their handling of the case, especially the police and CPS working with the victim.
But, just supposing, this was another ploy engineered by a manipulative, devious person who according to the evidence already disclosed in court, is unable to face her own weaknesses. Who, whilst formally admitting the offence, is unable to deal with the vision of her actual, violent, murderous behaviour against someone she knew and worked for, indeed callously visiting the victim whilst she was in hospital. Should such a person really be allowed the luxury of playing the legal system, whilst the victim seeks closure?
I don’t have an answer, and clearly the legal system doesn’t either.