Could the Woodward verdict happen here?
11 November 1997
29 April 2013
31 October 2013
19 February 2014
9 January 2014
4 December 2013
The Louise Woodward guilty verdict could never happen in Britain, surely? Twelve months ago it nearly did, when Stephen Packman was tried with "being concerned" in the supply of Ecstasy to Leah Betts, says John Cooper. John Cooper, British Counsel for the Louise Woodward Campaign for Justice.
The death of Leah Betts two years ago became a watchword for the evils of Ecstasy. The trial of Stephen Packman accused of "being concerned" with the supply of the drug, attracted intense television attention.
During the course of two Crown Court trials, Packman and his family were subjected to saturation television coverage. As a young man with no previous criminal experience he found it intimidating, but more damaging is the fact that it meant the jury would already have formed firm views about Betts, Packman and Ecstasy.
There are huge similarities between Stephen Packman's trial and that of Louise Woodward. Like the family of Matthew Eappen, Mr and Mrs Betts aired their views on television. They did not set out to prejudice the views of a jury, but their words could clearly influence the jury's approach. Indeed, during the course of the "Leah Betts Ecstasy Trial", the defence successfully persuaded the judge to request that Mr and Mrs Betts stop talking to television people during the trial.
Woodward, like Packman, was 19 years old and of good character. Both became the centre of television attention, before and during the trial. While both the victims' parents became well-known faces on television, both defendants' parents avoided television attention, and trusted the trial system.
But there is one big difference. While Louise Woodward was let down by the US system, Stephen Packman was vindicated by ours - although it was a close run thing.
It took two Crown Court trials costing over £300,000 to successfully defend Packman. In each of these trials the jury was out overnight. When they returned, neither could make up its mind. The second judge then ruled that Packman should be found not guilty.
The intense pressure on the Betts jury made a decision impossible. Both judges correctly decided that after a day of deliberations the jury could not be forced to reach a verdict they were unhappy with, and subsequently discharged them.
The jury in Louise Woodward's case must have been under intolerable pressure, and should have been discharged. It was prejudiced from the start by television coverage and by demands to deliver a verdict which neither it, nor the millions of supporters of Louise Woodward, would accept.
The British and American systems are, of course, different. First, in Britain there is no such thing as the abhorrent "noose or lose" system, where the defence decides whether the jury will consider a lesser charge of manslaughter. That decision is left to a British jury. If, during its deliberations on a murder charge the jury feels that manslaughter is appropriate, it will decide that. That is just the power these US jurors were crying out for.
Second, in Britain we have either murder or manslaughter. We do not have any concept of "second degree murder". With murder, the judges must hand down a mandatory life sentence, but for manslaughter sentences can range from a short prison sentence to probation.
Third, there is no agenda for a British prosecutor. The allegations that the US prosecutors "over-charged" Louise Woodward with murder to advance their political careers could never have been made.
Fourth, British juries are rarely confined to hotels overnight. In the Betts trial the jurors retired to their homes, removing the intense pressure to reach a verdict simply so they could go home.
Fifth, in Britain, after a jury has deliberated for two hours and 10 minutes, a judge can ask them to reach a verdict where 10 agree and two do not. This removes the pressure on juries to unacceptably compromise their views.
Sixth, we do not have the television camera in our courts and advocacy is less of a performance and more about getting to the truth.
Finally, the recent British authority of R v Taylor and Taylor would have prevented the Woodward trial from ever starting. The prejudiced pre-trial publicity in the Woodward trial was on all fours with that in Taylor, which established that where manifestly untrue and misleading reporting surrounded the circumstances relating to an offence, and where that information was readily accessible, the defendants in such cases were denied the opportunity of a fair trial.
No one system of law is perfect, but each can learn from the other, and it is in that spirit of co-operation that the legal teams in Britain and the US will be working