Several years ago when my wife (also a lawyer) and I were in London on holiday, we took the opportunity to visit Old Bailey, London’s famous criminal courthouse. We were fortunate on the day we visited to see a portion of rather sensational murder trial. The facts surrounding the underlying crime, while lurid, were also fascinating, but the most striking thing for us about the trial day we observed was the quality of the advocacy, which was absolutely brilliant. Witnessing the spectacle was a completely enthralling experience.
On a more recent visit to London, I was browsing the new books counter at Hatchard’s book store on Piccadilly when I happened to spot Thomas Grant’s book “Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials That Defined Modern Britain.” I took a photo of the book and sent the picture to my kids with a strong hint that I wouldn’t mind finding the book under the Christmas tree. Fortunately, the kids got the hint, and the book was among the presents I unwrapped this past Christmas.
When I saw the book at Hatchard’s, I suspected based on my prior visit to Old Bailey that I would be interested in the book. As it turns out, I found the book to be totally absorbing. Grant, the book’s author, is himself a barrister (and a QC – that is, Queen’s Counsel, an honorific indicating that the person so designated is “learned in the law”), and he has put together a masterful and compelling volume.
The book consists of a series of accounts of eleven criminal trials, all of which took place in Old Bailey’s Courtroom No. 1, historically reserved for the highest-profile and most important trials. The trial accounts are arranged chronologically. The first trial described, involving “The Camden Town Murder,” took place in 1907, and the last trial described, involving the tragic murders of two pre-teen girls, took place in 2003. Along the way, he describes the trials of the obscure and of the famous, including, among others, the post-war trial of Lord Haw-Haw, and the “Trial of the Century” – the 1979 trial of the Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe.
The chronological approach works well, as it highlights how much the court practices and procedures have changed over time. The role of the judge, the limits of advocacy, and the rights accorded the accused all changed dramatically during the time period covered in the book. The rise of mass media press coverage also has had a significant impact. But perhaps the most interesting effects of the chronological approach is that it illustrates how perceived injustices or shortcomings of earlier trials led to later changes in both the procedures and the law.
Grant has chosen his examples well. The first case described, that of the Camden Town Murderer, Robert Hall, shows how the brilliant advocacy of one of the age’s most acclaimed barristers, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, led to the defendant’s acquittal, against all odds. As is the case throughout the book, Grant’s eye as an experienced barrister himself allows him to highlight the ways that Marshall Hall’s skillful cross-examination cast doubt on the Crown’s evidence. Grant also celebrates the brilliant oratory that a truly skilled advocate can bring to his or her task.
Many of the Grant’s trial descriptions have a cinematic quality. Indeed, it is no accident that over time there have been a number of films based on Old Bailey trials. The most famous of these movies is Witness for the Prosecution, based on the Agatha Christie short story and play of the same name (which, coincidentally, my wife and I saw performed here in Cleveland last fall – it was excellent).
Another movie based on an Old Bailey trial is 10 Rillington Place. The movie is based on the Old Bailey murder trial of Timothy Evans, who was accused of murdering his wife and daughter.
The Evans murder trial is one of the eleven trials described in Grant’s book. The story is so lurid and fascinating that you would never believe it if it hadn’t actually happened. Grant skillfully tells the tale of Evans’s wife’s disappearance, of the police investigation, and of Evans’s arrest, as well as the hysterical media coverage that surrounded these events. Throughout his description of the subsequent trial, Grant details the flaws in the Crown’s case, as well as the shortcomings of Evans’s defense – his counsel clearly found the entire situation distasteful in the extreme. A large part of the Crown’s evidence was provided by Evans’s neighbor, a World War I veteran named John Christie.
Evans ultimately was convicted and later executed. Sadly, after Evans’s death, the police uncovered evidence that Christie had been involved in a series of grisly murders. The investigation of the other murders ultimately led the police to conclusive proof that it was Christie, not Evans, who had murdered Evans’s wife and daughter. Evans’s conviction and execution were in fact the result of a tragic miscarriage of justice. As Grant details, the 10 Rillington Place Trial was instrumental in the ultimate elimination of the death penalty in Britain.
The 10 Rillington Place Trial is truly remarkable, but the trial described in Grant’s book that I found most interesting was 1991 trial of Michael Randall and Pat Pottle, who were accused of aiding the prison escape of George Blake, a former MI6 agent who had been convicted of providing highly classified and sensitive information to the Russians. Randall and Pottle were peace activists and non-conformists who had met Blake while they themselves were in prison for prior convictions based on protest activities. The factual background of Blake’s conviction and escape itself makes the Randall and Pottle case interesting, but what makes the trial account compelling is the fact that Randall and Pottle conducted their own defenses. Not only did they manage to procure their own acquittals, but they did so despite having admitted in a book they wrote that they had in fact assisted Blake’s escape.
Grant’s account of how Randall and Pottle cleverly managed to insinuate themselves with the jurors and convince them not to convict despite the evidence really makes for a great story. Grant’s somewhat philosophical reflection on the jury’s verdict – an example of what we in the U.S. would call “jury nullification” – is a fascinating essay on the importance of jury independence in an adversarial system.
I think just about any reader would find this book to be a terrific read, but this book will be particularly rewarding for anyone who is interested in the role of advocacy in an adversarial system of justice. Grant is a keen observer and sharp commentator. His eye for the telling detail and his narrative skill bring these trials to life. His own experience as a practicing barrister gives his observations a satisfying aura of authority. You come away not only entertained, but also with a sense that you truly understood what happened.
I feel compelled to add a note of caution. Some American readers may find some features of this book a little off-putting. This book was written for a British audience. It assumes acquaintance with a host of crimes and trials that, from the way they are mentioned in the book, must be just common knowledge in Britain, but that were completely unknown to me. Grant also mentions a multitude of celebrities, politicians, authors, journalists, and other public figures with an unstated assumption that of course everyone knows these people. I recognized very few of these individuals’ names, and so whatever reference Grant sought to evoke was completely lost on me.
However this last point is at most a minor quibble. I enjoyed this book. I liked it so much that as soon as I finished it, I immediately started reading it again. I liked it so much that I wish Grant would find eleven more trials to write about and publish another book just like this one.