Authors:Fiona Bawdon
Last updated:2024-05-01
A bulwark against injustice or too easily swayed?
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Lady Justice close up (Hermann Traub_Pixabay)
In 2010, I co-wrote a book about the ‘ricin terror plot’ (so-called, even though there was no plot and no ricin). After a seven-month Old Bailey trial, which attracted worldwide media attention, four of the five Algerian defendants were acquitted by the jury; the fifth was convicted of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.
The driving force behind Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was (Pluto Press, 2010) was my co-author, Lawrence Archer, the foreman of the jury in the trial. A telecoms engineer at the time, and previously studiedly apolitical, Lawrence and some of his fellow jurors had been incensed when the government effectively ignored their painstaking deliberations and rapidly rearrested the acquitted men on national security grounds. The arrests were based largely on evidence that had been discredited during the trial.
Lawrence went on to forge friendships with the four, and – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – became something of a spokesperson against what he saw as draconian anti-terrorism legislation.
Unsurprisingly, the ricin case and the experience of working with Lawrence has given me a profound respect for juries and belief in their importance as a bulwark against state overreach and protectors against miscarriages of justice. Lawrence and I even dedicated Ricin! to ‘the British jury system’ (and, yes, I do know that technically, there is no such thing as the British jury system). But is such faith wholly justified?
Based on his experiences, Stephen Kamlish KC would say not. Kamlish acts for four Muslim men from the Midlands – Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain, Mohibur Rahman and Tahir Aziz, collectively known as the Birmingham Four – who were convicted in 2017 of terrorism offences after a police sting operation.
Speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice event to mark the launch of the latest issue of Proof magazine, Kamlish said the jury in the case were ‘effectively infected with Islamophobia’. The case played out against a backdrop of a series of terrorist attacks. Kamlish told the meeting: ‘The Westminster, London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks all happened during the first half of the trial.’
Kamlish was also critical of the judge and prosecution in the case. The flaws in police evidence against the four were so significant and obvious that ‘in normal times the prosecution would have dropped the case’. There were ‘dozens and dozens and dozens of fabrications of evidence,’ he added.
Three of the four, including Khobaib Hussain, had previous convictions for terrorist offences, but Moazzam Begg, senior director at CAGE International, said the whole plot was a police invention. The jury had convicted the men ‘for a crime that didn’t exist’.
Hussain’s sister, Mariam, read a message from her brother, saying: ‘All the prosecution have to do is convince 12 jury members, or in my case, the 11 remaining jury members during the trial. It comes down to who tells a better story and can play on the jury’s emotions.’
Nisha Waller, racial justice researcher at Appeal, told the meeting that there are over 1,000 convictions every year based on majority verdicts. Appeal acted for Andrew Malkinson, who was exonerated in 2023 having served 17 years for a rape following conviction by a 10 to 2 majority. His conviction was overturned after the belated emergence of DNA evidence linking another potential suspect to the attack.
Writing in Proof, Waller said that, while the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Criminal Cases Review Commission had rightly come in for criticism in the Malkinson case, ‘the jury who determined his guilt was untouched by scrutiny’. She stressed Malkinson does not hold the jury responsible for his wrongful conviction – crucial evidence indicating his innocence was withheld from them – but added: ‘We should not ignore the fact that Malkinson would have been acquitted if not for the court accepting a majority jury verdict.’
Waller concluded: ‘Unless we are claiming that dissenting jurors are always unreasonable, their votes inherently represent reasonable doubt. The remaining jurors are not at fault, but the good value of juries should not exempt the jury system from scrutiny.’
‘Jurors are only human and humans by nature all have different opinions,’ Archer told Legal Action. ‘Thus a jury is formed of 12 members, to achieve a reasonable balance of opinion. However, the jury‘s decision stands or falls on the evidence presented. When sworn in at the beginning of trial, jurors are told to reach a conclusion based wholly on that evidence presented at trial. Jurors need to take this oath seriously, no matter how difficult that may be.’