And justice for all

On 23rd November 1910 Hawley Harvey Crippen was hung at Pentonville Prison for the murder of his wife Cora in the February of the same year. The case was a sensation in its day, to the point that Crippen’s name has lived on in infamy while other killers of the era have faded and been forgotten. Crippen – the little man, the worm that turned – was a dodgy doctor with a chequered past, who poisoned domineering Cora and buried her in the cellar at their home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway. Kate Williams a musical hall acquaintance of Cora’s, known to the Victorian/Edwardian world by her stage name Vulcana the female strong woman, reported Cora missing to the police and voiced her concerns about Crippen, but Crippen, together with his lover Ethel Neve, fled with Neve disguised as a boy, aiming to get to Canada on the Steam Ship Montrose and disappear. Following a wireless tip off from the captain in the mid-Atlantic, Inspector Dew of the Yard raced across the pond to catch the ‘London Cellar Murderer’ by the quicker mail boat, and Crippen was brought back to England in handcuffs en route to his Old Bailey trial and the long drop with a short stop.

 

According to Her Majesty’s Court Service, ‘Jury service is one of the most important civic duties that anyone can be asked to perform. As a juror, you have a chance to play a vital part in the justice system. Each individual juror will be asked to consider the evidence presented and then decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.’ Prior to retiring to consider their verdict the jury will receive instructions from the judge, outlining the jury’s role and requiring that their decision of either guilty or not guilty be based not on the balance of probabilities but on a belief beyond reasonable doubt, and that the jury’s decision must be reached without prejudice and based purely on the matters heard in court by considering the evidence which has been deemed admissible.

 

Back in 1910 there was no television. No radio. No internet. News got to the people slowly, stylistically censored by the prevailing morals of the time and in print. Even so the Crippen trial was a spectacle. A hundred years later and news is more immediate than ever before. This is the Age of Information. The good, the bad and the all too often ugly. Almost everyone has a mobile telephone capable of capturing broadcastable sound and images in High Definition. Advances in the communications network allows these files to be emailed to news agencies or directly posted to the internet within seconds (for example the London G20 riots from 2009). News embargos are harder to enforce because information is so much harder to contain. Most people have access to the world wide web. You can post a ‘I’m being murdered by my husband’ update on your Facebook page via the iPhone or Twitter a kill total as you wander ‘round the streets shooting strangers. And such is the competition in the media – TV, radio, the internet, newspapers and magazines – each desperate to scoop the next big story, that each agency tries to out do the next by releasing increasingly sensitive information in an effort to attract viewers/readers. And in cases where multiple agencies have hold of a story, then each tries to elbow past competitors by bagging some exclusive angle. With as many juicy details as possible. The more salacious the better. The more contentious the better. The more controversial the better. Creating more arguments. Had the Crippen case been unfolding today, he would have been interviewed on the Montrose by Kay Burley. Plucky Kay abseiling on deck from the Sky News helicopter. The interview beamed live around the world. Ethel Neve would be a double page spread in the tabloids holding a bottle of poison, recounting her torrid affair with Crippen, and Fiona Bruce would have been in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, telling us about the feeling of evil and the stench. All before Crippen went anywhere near Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone in the No. 1 court of the Old Bailey.

 

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 states that conduct may be treated as a contempt of court as tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings regardless of intent to do so. [The] rule applies only to a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced. The strict liability rule applies to a publication only if the proceedings in question are active within the meaning of this section at the time of the publication. Under the act, together with other circumstances, criminal proceedings are deemed to have started when an arrest has been made. Married to this, Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to a fair trial.

 

This brings us to Bradford, West Yorkshire and 2010. Between April 2009 and May 2010 three women went missing in Bradford. Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth. All three women were living vulnerable lives, funding their drug and drink addictions through prostitution. Police were alerted when CCTV footage was discovered which appeared to show a serious assault and following this the body of Suzanne Blamires was found in the River Aire. Stephen Griffiths was arrested a short time later on suspicion of murder. Remains of Shelley Armitage were also later recovered from the Aire. Susan Rushworth’s body has so far not been found. Griffiths was charged with the murders of all three women.

 

Stephen Griffiths might very well be a loner and a weirdo, as the press are eager to report, but that doesn’t preclude him being intelligent. Griffiths is a psychology graduate who at the time of the murders was studying criminology as a mature student. And I have a sneaking suspicion that his defence has already been hinted at with his first appearance at Bradford Magistrates’ Court and later the same day at the Crown Court on 28th May 2010. A defence that will have nothing to do with whether he’s done it or not. Noting to do with the truth. But everything to do with Article 6 of the European Covention on Human Rights. Because thanks to the press coverage, it would now almost seem that Griffiths’ name is irrelevant to anyone on the jury. The twelve good men and true. So why should he give it to the court when they ask him to confirm his identity? Why not give the name he has been branded with? Because thanks to the media exposure, how many people don’t now think that Griffiths has committed these murders? Who cannot have heard of the case? Who cannot be aware of the media’s implications? The hints at the evidence? And above all these things that fact that Griffiths is inextricably tied to a label the media has identified him with. A label he’s apparently felt compelled identify himself to the court with as being stronger than his own name. Because thanks to the media Stephen Griffiths is the now Crossbow Cannibal. So ask the jury to clear their minds of all prejudice and good luck with your fair trial.

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