Last week, my friend Jo Sidhu QC called me up and asked me to attend a murder case to which he was assigned. Coming into Nottingham Crown Court this morning, all I know is that I am attending a murder case, and that this is my first time.
The reality of what is about to happen starts hitting me. I am told the victim is only 19 years old! What a tragedy.
As I enter the courtroom, to my left and right is the public. I catch a glimpse of the victim’s family, a look of disbelief written all over their faces. On the other side of the courtroom, the defendants’ families, seeming worried and confused. The room feels tense and overcrowded.
I finally get to my seat. To my right is a glass box, in which three men (all in their early twenties) are seated, and to my relief, handcuffed. Despite the fact that the murder was caught on CCTV cameras, they sit anxiously waiting for their destiny to be announced and hoping for the best.
My thoughts are interrupted by the judge entering the room. Everyone stands, silenced by his presence.
The jury enters the room and the trial is now ready to begin.
In the prosecution’s opening statement, we are told that the victim was killed in a drunken fight on February 8, 2015, at 4:00 AM. The prosecutor shows us the murder weapon: a mean-looking knife. He then explains that we will be watching footage of the crime.
I can feel the atmosphere in the room heating up and with just cause…we are about to watch the video recording of an actual murder.
The family of the victim, understandably, refuses to partake in this and leaves the courtroom while it is shown. As I look over in their direction, there seems to be no remedy for their sorrow. For now, they must put aside their deep pain – for in the courtroom we no longer speak of sorrow or loss. In the courtroom, we speak of reasonable doubt, chain of causation and proportionality. Emotions have been distilled, leaving space only for ‘justice.’
I am sitting on the last row of the legal team, next to Jo. Right behind me – no more than two meters away and separated by glass – are the defendants. Johnson, who is said to have stabbed the victim, is right behind me. I can almost feel his breath on my back. I want to turn and get a good look at him but I must watch the CCTV footage beforehand.
The video starts playing, and it is 4:00 AM. We see that the three defendants were on a side street, sitting with their backs against a wall. Walking by was Henry, the victim’s friend. Henry, we can see, was very drunk, and stumbled over one of the defendants. This immediately ignited a fight. Henry, drunk and alone, was quickly knocked to the ground, unconscious. Despite this, the defendants continued to beat him.
The court is horrified, and the jury’s body language is explicit. Some cover their mouths with their hands (expressing shock), others shake their heads in disapproval, while the rest seem completely frozen. The video is very explicit and it is difficult for me to remain untouched by violent images. However, as part of the defence team, I must keep a poker face to make sure that my actions do not influence the jury in any way.
The footage continues. Seeing the scene from afar, Josh (the victim) runs to help his friend. Josh is tall and well built. He manages to knock down one of the defendants. At this point, the prosecutor pauses the video, explaining, “After this, things escalate very quickly.”
The tape resumes. A few seconds pass, then Johnson swiftly walks up to 19-year-old Josh and repeatedly stabs him in the chest. There is no immediate reaction from Josh. (We see the knife falling to the ground, shining its silver blade into the lens of the camera. I glance over at the jury and spot one of the women crying.)
The fight continues for what feels like another 30 seconds. In a mixture of rage and terror, Josh relentlessly keeps throwing punches, fighting for his life. The fight is clearly already lost. Josh then walks to the middle of the road and falls, head first, onto the concrete.
Josh is dead.
Not a word is pronounced in the courtroom. Are we shocked, or showing respect to the victim and his family? I suspect a bit of both.
Suddenly, I feel the overwhelming need to turn around. I take a good look at the defendant. He looks scared and uncomfortable and is doing his best to avoid eye contact with me. He looks truly ashamed.
The trial continues to run. The video is replayed several times and paused with explanations by the prosecution. Witnesses are coming in, one after the other and a strong case is being made against the defendants.
All the barristers on this case are QCs (Queen’s Counsel: the highest recognition that can be awarded to a Barrister), and this ignites some reflection in me. I’ve lived in many places – some more democratic than others. I feel blessed to be a citizen of the UK, where even a murderer can be assigned to fantastic lawyers who are themselves eager to defend their clients to the best of their ability.
As a lawyer, I believe that every person deserves the best defence possible. Must a lawyer empathise with his client in order to defend him? I couldn’t say for sure, but I decided that I will try and empathise with the murderer.
I keep turning around and looking at him, desperately trying to understand the motives behind his actions. I can’t seem to gauge his personality. I then begin to wonder: Am I capable of empathising with my clients? Is this the only way to deliver legal advice to the best of my ability? Isn’t this the only way to understand a person’s motives and to act accordingly?
I remember this sentence I once read, “Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”
Again, I want to get a read on Johnson and I try to meet his eyes.
After a short lunch break, we are allowed back into the courtroom (2:00 PM sharp). The trial is about to resume. As I sit, the QC representing Johnson turns to me, and signals for me to come closer. I follow. With a lowered voice, he says to me, “My client seems uncomfortable with you turning around.” I look at him in disbelief, as the defendant is about 4 times my size. He laughs and continues, “I know, this is unusual to me too, but you’ve successfully intimidated my client.” We laugh it off and I return to my seat, promising to refrain from turning around again.
And so I understand. The man sitting behind me is not evil. He most probably felt the need to prove himself in front of his friends, as many have done before. Under the influence of alcohol, it is a lot easier for things to blow out of proportion. I begin to understand his mindset that night. I finally empathise. This does not mean that I agree with his actions, or even believe that he should be released, but it enables me to paint a better picture of our society.
This case is a sad, yet accurate portrayal of today’s reality. The youth are tempted with drugs, and boys are pushed to demonstrate their manhood all too often through intimidation and violence.
One of the drugs that is known to induce the most violent of behaviours in a consumer, is alcohol. It will never stop baffling me that this drug is both legal and widely accepted by society.
There is no way to say for sure, but I suspect that this murder would not have occurred had it not been for alcohol. Regardless, Johnson was sentenced to 25 years in jail. He will get out at 50 years of age. Meanwhile, Josh is gone and his family continues to mourn his death.
The author of today’s post is Linkilaw’s CEO and founder, Alexandra Isenegger.