Friday, February 15, 2008

The Ipswich Murders Trial - Day 20

Working nights has its advantages, and on Day 19 I tried to attend the trial as a member of the public.

Damn it, all the places had gone by the time I got down there, so I went to bed and tried again on Wednesday – Day 20. This time I got in.

If you were to wander from one side of town to the other, you'd find that Ipswich is a surprisingly large place, but an accident of geography means the Crown Court is right next door to the red light area. To get to it from my house meant walking down London Road, walking down Handford Road past the corner with Burlington Road where so many of the victims stood waiting for the next punter, and then down Portman Road – the outer edge of the red light area. Cross into Sir Alf Ramsey Way (another favourite spot for hookers), take a left past the old football training ground and you’re pretty much there.

At the famous Oz obscenity trial held at the Old Bailey in the early 70s, even a man as unrestrained as George Melly claimed he was “intimidated by the architecture.” I doubt Good Time George would have felt the same in Ipswich Crown Court. A structure of glass and milk-of-magnesia white walls, when I passed through security it seemed strange not be confronted by a corporate mission statement and a row of computer cubicles. I’ve spent almost my entire working life in such sterile environments; bland as a CEO’s quarterly speech. To be fair, this building isn’t too bad. There’s a feeling of light and space (the sunlight helps), and it’s all clean and well maintained. It’s also inadequate for a trial of this magnitude.

Because of the huge media interest, there’s no space for the public in Court No 1. Instead, the adjacent Court No 2 serves as a media centre and a tiny public gallery. I felt better about not getting in the previous day, as the total number of seats was… 17. There are two monitors that show the scene in Court No 1, and the sound is piped in too. At the very back of the room, where the public sit, the picture on the nearest monitor was small and indistinct. It took a bit of squinting at the picture to realize that what seemed to be low partitions in the courtroom were actually rows of box files on desks. The sound was good though, and gradually things began to make sense.

Some random observations:

Almost all the media people are good looking and are well and expensively dressed. You get the impression that you’re seeing an elite section of the 21st century aristocracy – or maybe a selection of the Nexus Six range. Many of them clearly know each other, and it was easy to spot key points in the evidence because they all subtlety react to it – bodies lean a fraction forward, fingers reach for laptops and pens. The impression is that this lot are cleverer than you and better looking than you and they earn more than you, and that both you and they know this.

The two QCs were much less adversarial than years of TV and film drama (and a lot of Rumpole) had led me to expect. In fact for the shot session I observed, they didn’t exchange a single cross word.

The defending barrister, Timothy Langdale, is more impressive live than on the page. He’s a got a very good voice; articulate as you’d expect, but also friendly and calm. In another life you could imagine him as a BBC continuity presenter, or perhaps a psychiatrist. This is a man you instinctively like, which must be a huge asset in his profession. I was less impressed by Peter Wright, but in fairness it was the defence’s day, and he didn’t do much this particular morning. The overall impression was of two professionals, utterly at ease, doing their jobs with no bad feeling between them.

It was the last day of the defence evidence, and I missed Steve Wright – I couldn’t even see the space where the accused sits. I assume he was in court, but I don’t know that for sure. This was one of the disadvantages of not being in the court room itself.

The defence called two women as witnesses. There was a nice contrast between the Suffolk accents of both women, and the received pronunciation of Timothy Langdale. He asked good questions, skillfully leading them along in their short testimony.

The first was Kerry Land, a night shift worker (hail comrade!) who works at the 24 hour petrol station just down the road on the edge of the red light area. She’d worked there for years, and knew lots of the prostitutes as customers. They’d come to the station in the small hours buying chocolate bars or whatever (Jeez - shades of my student days in Manchester). Some would hang around for chat. She was positive that she’d seen Tania Nicoll, alive and well and buying a chocolate bar after 11:30pm when according to the prosecution she should have been dead, or about to be killed. Kerry spoke clearly and calmly, and I found her evidence entirely convincing. What was less convincing was the date – she’s worked at that garage for 11 years, and her shift pattern hasn’t changed much – can we be sure she’s right about the date?

The final witness was Helen Brooks, who works in the post office and who starts her shift at 5 AM (Feck. The things we do for money). Timothy Langdale had a nice way to introduce her evidence. After she was sworn in and had given her full name, he asked her to look at a short clip of CCTV footage.

“Do you recognize that person?” he asked.
Helen smiled and said "Yes, it’s me."

A brilliant way of putting a witness at ease, and also proving that she was indeed cycling to work down Burlington Road at 3:42AM on October 31st. Rather like Kerry, Helen had got to know several prostitutes by sight as she went to work each day. She was positive that she’d seen Tania Nicoll alive and well and talking on a mobile phone. Again, according to the prosecution this would be a time when Tania was supposed to be dead, or about to be killed, having met Steve Wright several hours earlier.

Both witnesses were excellent; they didn’t seem nervous or unsure and I found them entirely plausible. The defence could do with more of them.

Timothy Langdale and his junior Mark Fenalls ended with a series of written statements being read out to the court. Once again, they mainly concerned the eccentric (disturbed?) Tom Stephens and his antics. There was evidence of the Stephens taxi service. Evidence of Stephens telling sex worker Nicola Brown to lie about the time he last saw her. Stephens visiting the police and telling them that if he was the killer he’d strangle the victims. Most damningly of all, on another occasion he told the police he might have a split personality and was worried that he was ‘doing things’ while not normal.

I was fascinated, but the final statement undermined everything: Tom Stephens had been thoroughly investigated, “DNAed,” his car and house had been subjected to forensics and he’d been interrogated. And at the end of all this… no charges had been brought. Nothing. Not even soliciting or kerb crawling. Not good for the defence. Not good at all.

After the defence had finished, the trial was adjourned. This was great, as I knew after being awake for nearly 24 hours I hadn’t the stamina for a full day of proceedings.

In the coffee bar afterwards, through the charming and beautiful playwright Alecky Blythe, I got a chance to meet someone whom I’m very grateful too – Josh Warwick of the Ipswich Evening Star. Josh is one of a team of four who’ve been reporting the trail live as it happens on the Ipswich Star website. i've been using this feed, along with a few random news items from other media for the blog coverage of the trial. Josh and co have done a great job, and I’m pleased I managed to thank him in person – at least he knows he’s been ripped off. THANK YOU.

I was also lucky enough to be introduced to a criminal psychologist Professor David Wilson who is writing a book about the Steve Wright case. Some of the stuff we discussed is restricted (while the trial is on) so I’ll tell you about him another time. Suffice to say I found him very impressive and will certainly read and review the book here when it’s published.

The trial is drawing to close and I’ll update you later today with the closing arguments. Then it’ll be time for the judge to sum up, and for the jury to decide…



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