Posts Tagged 'trial'

Some people are crazy about him, some people can’t stand his face, some people they smile when they know he’s coming, some people chase him out of the place…

Sane or insane? What would the difference be had Breivik have been on trial in England?

In July last year, Anders Breivik killed seventy seven people in what was the worst massacre to have taken place in Norway since the Second World War. Much of his subsequent trial have centered around the following issue – to what extent was Breivik responsible for his own actions?

Breivik himself has insisted that his actions resulted from his extremist view that he was acting to prevent a Muslim invasion. He states that he is sane, that he believes his actions were reasonable given his perception and so denies the charge of terrorism.

As in most legal systems, in Norway’s Penal Code the defendant’s state of mind is key to his or her culpability. Accordingly the court ordered a psychiatric report on Breivik and then after criticism of its findings, that Breivik suffered from psychosis, a second report was commissioned. This report reached a different conclusion, implying that whilst poor mental health had a role to play in Breivik’s actions, his state of mind was not sufficiently to prevent him being imprisoned.

There are two components that are usually considered when judging an accused’s guilt – that they have committed a guilty act (‘actus reus’) and that overlapping with this, they had a guilty state of mind (‘mens rea’).

If both are present at the same time, the elements required for an offence are satisfied.

The defence of insanity relates to the defendant’s guilty state of mind and implies that whilst a person may well have committed the guilty act, they should not be found guilty because their insanity at the time disqualified their necessary state of mind.

In England the defence of insanity is defined with reference to the ‘M’Naghten rules’ which came about as a result of the acquittal of Daniel McNaughton after he took a shot at Robert Peel in 1843.

These rules state that ‘to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong’.

The reference to not knowing the ‘nature and quality’ of the act is that the defendant did not know what he was physically doing, for example he had cut someone’s throat thinking that he was actually cutting a loaf of bread.

When it comes to not knowing that the act was wrong and using the same example, the defence would have to prove that whilst the defendant had knowingly cut the throat, as a result of his mental state he had not known that doing so was wrong.

The court is entitled to presume that a defendant is sane and when it comes to making the case for a defence of insanity, the burden of proof lies with the defence and they must make their case on the balance of probabilities.

If the defence is successful, the sensitively named Trial of Lunatics Act 1883 affords the courts a verdict of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.

The impact of Breivik’s actions have understandably evoked a strong public feeling that he ought to be properly punished for his attacks with the Norwegian sentiment being that his jailing would be preferable to being committed to a mental health hospital or that better still, the death penalty ought to be reintroduced.

Much interest has been raised in how the court has handled the issue of Breivik’s mental state and in how Norway’s Penal Code assesses psychiatric concerns in relation to an offender’s guilt.

The judges now have until August 24th to deliver their verdict and will no doubt be influenced by both strong public opinion and the varying evidence offered by the psychiatric reports.

The case is a reminder that deciding the extent of a defendant’s insanity as a bearing on their guilt is never an easy one and that reliable ‘facts’ can sometimes be hard to come by in support of the decision.

The evidence before the court is incontrovertible, there’s no need for the jury to retire…

Exhibit LH/5 - The jacket Stephen Lawrence had worn on the night he died. The outcome of the case may come down to the continuity of exhibits like these.

For anyone who’s been following the developments in the Stephen Lawrence retrial, the importance of correctly handling exhibits is quite clear with much of the argument of the defence being based upon the reliability of DNA evidence relating to exhibits collected as part of the original case.

Gary Dobson and David Norris are both accused of having participated in Lawrence’s murder. The prosecution are claiming that fibres, blood and hair found on the clothing that was seized from them at the time links them to the scene and proves that they took part in the attack. Their defence council deny this saying that the evidence found is nothing more than evidence that their clothing had been contaminated at a later point.

How then do we as police officers try and ensure that exhibits are treated in such a way that we can rely on them in court?

When we seize items as part of an investigation – be it CCTV footage, clothing or anything else – we commence an audit trail so that we can account for the item’s movements right up to its eventual appearance in a court room.

This means that first of all we’ll write a statement explaining when and where the item was found, what it is and we’ll also give it a reference number so that it can be told apart from other items seized. We also detail what we did with the item after collecting it, for example that exhibit RJS/01 was then transported to Walsall Police Station when it was booked into detained property.

Along with a statement, we’ll also attach an exhibit label which is to be signed by anyone taking control of the item. Once booked into the property system the exhibit’s movements are then logged by the property computer and it will be locked away, again so that we can ensure its continuity.

Whilst keeping a track of an exhibit is important, so too is properly packaging it and taking care to ensure that an item does not become contaminated.

Locard’s Principle is important here – that every contact leaves a trace and that by touching one item and then another, a trace of the first item will likely to transferred across to the second.

This is why when we are investigating a rape, for example, the same officers who have been speaking to the victim will not then go and arrest the suspect as the defence would then be able to argue that any evidence found on the suspect was there because officers had transferred it to him or her from the victim.

As can be seen from the details emerging as the trial progresses, protecting the continuity of evidence can often be very difficult, especially when proving the case comes down to the presence of microscopic fibres on an item of clothing that has been sitting in a property store for eighteen years.

Still, it is principles such as those mentioned above that make the difference in many trials and hence why officers put the time in to ensure that when a case goes to court, they can be confident that they can rely on their evidence.

I’ve changed my plea to guilty because freedom is wasted on me…

A custody van delivers yet more rioters to court (Image from BBC)

Another day and another quick blog post to keep you updated about the steps we’re taking to keep safe the communities of the West Midlands and help with the process of putting the pieces back together again in the wake of the recent disorders.

Assuming you’re hooked up to my Twitter feed (or indeed any of the other WMP social media outlets), you’ll know that our shifts have been subject to a little ‘rejiggling’ to ensure that there are many, many officers on duty at peak times.

We are all working a little longer than we would do usually but at the same time the general feeling is that we’re all pulling together to help each other out and serve you in the process.

Last night’s shift, between 7PM and 7AM, saw officers on duty across the West Midlands either out in patrol cars, sitting in police vans or out on their feet in the town centres. I spent the shift with a partner driving around in one of the ‘response’ cars attending the call outs and jobs that we continue to receive irregardless of the riots.

Saying that I spent the night going to jobs though, I should probably clarify by saying that after midnight or so the calls had dropped off and reassuringly there was very little to do other than go on the prowl for burglars and spot foxes. I spoke to officers who were finishing having been out in the ‘public order’ vans and they reported a similar shift – lots of patrol and chatting to people but no issues at all.

I’ve been regularly checking the prisoners we have held in the cells at Walsall and Bloxwich Police Stations and have been inspired when I load up the ‘white board’ to see we’ve been filling our blocks with people arrested for burglary, theft, criminal damage, public order offences and all sorts else in connection with the disorders.

As you may have read, the courts are opening throughout the night in order to process the huge numbers of prisoners that we have – and are continuing to – arrest having been identified as responsible for looting, some being arrested, charged and jailed inside twenty four hours.

To this end the CID department have been working especially hard in collecting evidence, interviewing and securing charges for these prisoners and so I think deserve a great deal of recognition for the results they’re achieving.

Meanwhile we continue to be bolstered by the huge amount of positive feedback that we’re receiving through the social networks and as I’ve said before, will say now and will say again in the future, it really does mean a lot to us.

My ‘Dedication’ photo continues to act as an apparent conduit for public goodwill towards us emergency services having quite expectantly found its way into many of the national papers and even onto the TV.

The amount of people who have shared it with others as a mark of their support for our work has been outstanding and whilst it does indeed reflect the resident fatigue of our longer hours, it at the same time reinforces our resolve to work the shifts, your support demonstrating that at times like these, the police really are the public and the public the police.


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