Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

I have blogged before about the crucial part that identification plays in many criminal cases, and about the raft of case law that guides the courts. Caution is the watchword, and the few magistrates who have not heard a Turnbull argument will do so, sooner or later.
Put yourself into the shoes of a newly appointed magistrate sitting on the wing in Court 3. The charge is GBH and we are sitting as examining justices in a committal hearing to decide whether there is a case to answer at the Crown Court. In those days live witnesses were heard at committal - now it's different. The victim gives evidence that he was walking home from the pub at about midnight when a man jumped out of the bushes, grabbed him from behind, and 'pushed' a knife into his stomach, twisting it about as he did so. Medical evidence told of 25 stitches in the wound and the same again in the man's intestines. The victim named the assailant to the ambulance crew and to the police who attended. He had, he claimed, been to school with the man, and had known him for most of his life. I was convinced that the victim was telling the truth, and I had no reason to doubt his identification.
To cut a long story short, the case was hopeless. A man has been assaulted from behind, suffers serious wounds, and, in his pain and shock, has a back view of someone running off. He identifies the someone as an old acquaintance but has had no view of his face and has not heard his voice. In the dark. Wearing a coat of some sort. The new magistrate agreed with his colleagues' decision that there was no case to answer, and went home more aware than he had been previously of the meaning of 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt'. For the record, the test was whether a reasonable jury, properly directed, could (not would) convict on the evidence we had heard.

(10.45 a.m.- I have edited this post, as my recollection of a 20 year-old case has improved overnight).

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