John Cooper loves a bit of profile. Before our first meeting he faxed me his entry in De Brett’s People of Today to let me know he was not just a fly-by-night lawyer – which is true, he is not.
However, Cooper, a tenant of leading human rights set 3 Gray’s Inn Square, is not seeking publicity for himself, but Manjit Kaur Basuta, the 44-year-old British nanny who is serving 25 years for shaking a 13-month-old boy in her care to death.
Perhaps the most notable factor about Basuta’s case is the similarity with that of Louise Woodward’s. Both crimes took place in the US and both involve accusations of baby-shaking against British women.
However, while Louise Woodward was a white 19-year old student working as a nanny on her gap year, Basuta is a middle-aged Sikh, who also holds an Indian passport and who settled in the US in 1989, where she set up a day nursery.
And whereas the Woodward campaign received unprecedented press attention, the limited column inches on Basuta show an apathetic attitude from the nation’s press.
In June, The Guardian wrote: “[Basuta] can expect few people in Britain to campaign for her release.” But, as Basuta’s campaign manager, that is exactly Cooper’s task.
His CV for the campaigning arena is impressive. He acted for BCCI employees whose lives, he says, were literally destroyed by the bank’s collapse and he was also a player in the Woodward campaign.
As well as being a campaigner for criminal justice, Cooper is also a willing member of New Labour. He has worked for a long time with Frank Dobson, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras. Cooper advised on the 1987 King’s Cross Tube disaster and is working on Dobson’s bid to become London’s new mayor.
Despite such diverse experience, Cooper describes the Basuta campaign as his toughest test to date.
Cooper sees some similarities between the circumstances surrounding the BCCI debacle and Basuta’s current predicament.
“The collapse of a bank through fraud is initially not that sexy,” he says, explaining that part of his role as campaign manager was to sell his clients’ stories to the press.
The media were drawn in by targeting stories of individual families and the harsh realities of both the mother and father losing their jobs.
“People had their whole worlds wound up with BCCI, not just their jobs but their mortgages, pensions, loans, their bank accounts. That was part of the deal, so when the bank collapsed so did these peoples’ lives,” says Cooper.
Cooper originally became involved in the Woodward campaign because of his experience in handling adverse publicity. He was contacted after successfully defending in the so-called Leah Betts ecstasy trial.
“A lot of the advice I gave there related to publicity angles, to fair trial and publicity. You often cannot hide from the fact that the jury has been prejudiced by the news, or that they haven’t read the papers,” he says.
Cooper’s role in the Woodward campaign was to interpret the legal proceedings in the US for campaigning and publicity purposes in the UK and research any potentially persuasive authorities on adverse publicity that might have assisted the US legal team.
However, Cooper was only involved with the Woodward campaign for two months, highlighting the predicament that a campaign lawyer can often find himself in.
Combining the roles of lawyer, general counsellor and PR manager often puts them right in the middle of an intensely fraught situation.
“With Woodward it really flared up. The problem was that the people I was talking to were not in positions of authority and it became a little difficult to tender advice,” says Cooper.
“One of the most important things as a lawyer advising a campaign committee is deciding when your role is over. That can be when the campaign’s been successful, when there is nowhere else for the campaign to go, or when people indicate they want to take other advice. With Woodward it was a mixture of all three. You have to have the humility to stand down.”
Good communication seems to be the key to any successful campaign, but there have already been problems in his present role leading to an increasingly fraught relationship between Cooper and San Diego assistant district attorney (DA), Paul Greenwood.
“We’re being accused of being misleading and misrepresenting the facts by the DA,” says Cooper.
However, Cooper is at pains to point out that this is not the DA’s fault.
“If the campaign committee has got it wrong then my advice will be to immediately admit they have got it wrong, but people on this committee have been deprived, for good or for bad, of a loved one and they feel a great sense of injustice. It is for us to establish over the next period of time, through logical and sensible debate, whether this injustice is real or imagined.
“But someone has to fight their corner and to find out where justice lies – and that in essence is a statement about campaigns generally as much as it is about the Manjit Basuta campaign,” he says.
The root of the problem seems to be that Cooper is being forced to rely on the committee for his information about the case.
He has tried repeatedly to contact Basuta’s defence attorney but to no avail.
“I get information from members of the campaign committee, who are effectively my lay clients,” he says, adding that this information has never been disputed by Basuta’s defence attorneys, although it has not been confirmed either.
“It may well be the distance, a communication problem. I have tried to verify every aspect with US lawyers, but have had no response at all. We’ve had no observation from the defence attorney to say we’re wrong. Maybe they are very busy people who may be feeling, ‘who are these interfering British lawyers?'” he says.
However, he has also raised numerous queries with the DA himself and for over two months has received no response.
The prosecution admits that the chief prosecution witness changed her story, saying once that the baby, Oliver Smith, was pushed over by a young child, and a second time that Basuta did it.
“The prosecution have accepted that the chief prosecution witness changed her story from a position which supported us to a position which supported them,” says Cooper.
Cooper has even been told that the chief prosecution witness changed her story 12 times, not just twice as the prosecution contend.
The committee has also raised concerns that the evidence of two medical defence experts was not heard at the trial.
In addition, Cooper claims that the toddler was apparently prone to seizures, and his vomit was found at the scene of the incident, which the committee feels was indicative of a seizure and not baby-shaking.
And it has been reported that the child’s father is now saying that his wife used to shake the baby.
“I have asked for clarification from the DA about these allegations. I have asked for clarification whether the deceased was prone to seizures, whether the deceased’s vomit was found at the scene and whether the deceased’s father has made allegations but have received no answer,” says Cooper.
However, the DA has emailed Cooper saying how frustrating it is that the committee has been given incorrect information.
Cooper’s response to the allegation that he and the committee are misleading the public by putting forward inaccurate information is one of frustration.
“I am very anxious that I do not misquote or mislead anybody. I realise there are two sides to every case but we as a campaign have never deliberately repeated inaccurate statements. And whenever I have a counter view to put forward I will put it forward, but all we as a campaign want to do is to heighten the issues, one side and the other, so people can make their own decision. We are not in the business of misleading anybody.”
So far, only one cheque for £5 has been received. The family, however, has already outlayed £250,000 of its own money.
It is obviously a necessity then that those involved in the campaign give their time and services for free, but surprisingly, it is only the lawyers who do so.
“We can’t find a PR company willing to work pro bono. The bar has a great commitment to pro bono activity and I wish the Lord Chancellor would recognise that more,” says Cooper.
Basuta is now waiting for her appeal to be heard, which might not be for another year.
However, Cooper and the committee are determined that her plight will not be forgotten.
“We are absolutely determined to heighten this to a political campaign. The family will be approaching 10 Downing Street,” says Cooper.
He is also keen to adopt a conciliatory stance toward the DA and is simply asking for a reasoned response to his challenges on the soundness of Basuta’s conviction.
“We need to open lines of the communication with the DA, that will assist us, and show that we don’t want to be in conflict, all we want are the facts,” he says.
This case highlights the important role lawyers play in campaigning for justice and the necessity for both the bar and the solicitor’s side of the profession to continue to pursue pro bono activities.
It remains unclear whether Basuta’s appeal will be successful, but Cooper is convinced of her innocence and will support the committee until the case is concluded.
“We are confident that the truth will come out in Manjit’s favour but if it comes out in the opposite direction then I, as a campaign lawyer, will expect that justice has been done.”
3 Gray’s Inn Square