Friday 5 December 2008

A Very English Fix

This was written in response to a request to the Justice4Jean campaign to guest blog for Dave Hill's London Blog on The Guardian website. But unfortunately, Dave's e-mail not longer works, so I can't send it to him. This is what I wrote:

When the establishment moves to protect their own, it’s often through a very English fix, with the pleasantries maintained and the drama minimised.

So it was when Sir Michael Wright, the Coroner presiding over the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, yesterday explained the absence of the lawyers representing Jean’s family. "The evidence and legal submissions are now all over and we have had their assistance throughout these very important stages,” the Coroner said. “I understand that from this point they will no longer be here. There is absolutely no difficulty about that. No disrespect is meant by it to anyone."

The suggestioin seemed to be that the lawyers were somehow unavoidably busy elsewhere, but the truth was somewhat more serious. After meeting with their solicitors and after a number of telephone calls to relatives in Brazil, including to Jean’s mother Maria Otone de Menezes, the family had decided that the inquest was not longer a transparent or credible investigation into Jean’s death. They had then formally withdrawn as ‘interested persons’ from the court proceedings.

The jury weren’t, of course, supposed to know this and Sir Michael Wright may, too, have got away with brushing it to one side, had it not been for one final act of defiance by Jean’s cousins. In the midst of the Coroner’s summation of the evidence, they stood up, unzipped their jackets to reveal t-shirts with the slogans "Your Legal Right to Decide" and "Unlawful Killing Verdict" and then walked out of the courtroom, in full view of the jury, whilst the Coroner and barristers for the police looked on, open-mouthed. For the first time in many months, Jean’s family no longer felt like bystanders in a legal process that seemed intent on denying them justice.

Their anger is entirely understandable. After warning the inquest jury against “emotional reactions” to the evidence from Jean’s mother, Sir Michael hardly missed a beat before emphasising the need the jury to recall the moment that the highly-trained firearms officer C12 broke down in tears in the courtroom. Remember, the Coroner said, that "this tough, fit, highly-trained, mature man broke down in tears and this fact may assist you in assessing the depth of the emotional experience that he was going through here when he was reliving the terrible events of July 22." So much for putting emotions to one side, or that C12’s “emotional reaction” came a week before his evidence that a warning had been given before shots were fired was flatly contradicted by every single passenger who have been on the tube train at Stockwell station.

But what has appalled the family the most is the Coroner’s decision to deny the jury, after listening to months of evidence from 100 witnesses, the option to make up their own minds and reach verdicts, should they choose to, that Jean's death was negligent or unlawful. It’s anger and disgust shared by the hundreds of members of the public who have e-mailed us over the last few days.

Independent decision-making by juries of the public is the cornerstone of our legal system and juries have consistently demonstrated that they take their responsibilities seriously. Allowing them to do their job without restriction and to reach a verdict based on their own assessment of the evidence is the only way that the public can be confident that the evidence about Jean’s death has been properly and transparently investigated. The jury must be able reach a verdict that best reflects the evidence, without external constraints on what is – and what is not – allegedly ‘justified.

Of course, they may still do so, although it would take a very brave jury to ignore the Coroner’s instructions and remember that they can make whatever decision they wish. It seems rather unlikely but as Jean’s family said in a statement last night, “the jury have the legal right to return any verdict they want to and we hope that these 11 ordinary members of the public will do the right thing.”

Kevin Blowe
Justice4Jean Campaign

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