26th June 2018
Well, of course, Jeremy Thorpe was guilty.
(“A very English scandal” is wonderful television and was adapted from an excellent book.)
And it is certainly the view of anyone who has seen Peter Cook’s brutal take on the dreadful and biased summing up by the judge, a summing-up which is beyond doubt justified as being notorious.
A summing-up which brought the law and justice system into disrepute more than a thousand disciplinary cases before the Bar Council.
But here is a mental experiment.
Imagine a perfectly fair and objective judge, summing up the evidence as it was at the end of that trial. Would the jury’s verdict necessarily have been different?
The evidence of Peter Bessell was crucial: but serious doubt had been cast on its (or his) reliability, and a financial interest in a conviction had been demonstrated.
And event the evidence of Norman Scott and Andrew Newton, even taken it their highest, were not enough by themselves to join the dots of the conspiracy charge.
And even if the evidence of Bessell had been accepted in respect of the conspiracy, there perhaps still needed to be evidence adduced from Thorpe and other defendants to join those same dots.
But only one defendant gave evidence, and that evidence did not go to conspiracy to murder, only to threaten violence.
For the charge to be made out, at least beyond reasonable doubt, there needed to be explanations and information from Thorpe and the other two defendants.
And, as is well known, they all elected not to give evidence.
Without that evidence, and given the problems with Bessell’s evidence, and even taking the evidence of Scott and Newton at their highest, was there enough for any jury to convict on the charges?
Perhaps the judge’s ludicrous and shameful summing-up has provided a cover for a more difficult notion: that the jury did not have enough evidence before them to convict for conspiracy to murder.
We now are aware that two jurors stated afterwards that there was agreement that there was a conspiracy to intimidate Scott (see here), but that charge was (for no reason, or for no good reason) not put to the jury.
We are now also aware from what was said afterwards by David Holmes, one of the other defendants, and also further statements by Bessell, that there was information which could have led to a guilty verdict on the incitement and/or conspiracy charge. But that information was not evidence before the jury.
And we can never know what evidence Thorpe would himself would have given had he gone into the witness box (not “take the stand” as the TV show put it: we are not Americans).
It appears, perhaps with hindsight, that either the jury did not have the right charged before them or that a conspiracy charge was brought which made sense only if the defendants all gave evidence.
But the jury was left with a conspiracy to murder charge (and an incitement to murder charge) which at the end of the trial was not made out on the evidence before them, regardless of the summing-up.
For what it is worth, on all the information now available to a historian, and not to the jury, it is difficult to avoid concluding that there was a conspiracy to murder Scott, involving at least a majority of the defendants: there is no other plausible explanation for what happened on that evening when Rinka died and Scott did not.
And had Holmes given evidence, it is plain Thorpe would have been convicted on the incitement to murder charge.
So, it was clever (if that is the right word) for Thorpe to elect to not give evidence. had he done, it may well be that no judge’s summing-up would have saved him.
But by electing not to give evidence, Thorpe was not able to put forward his own version of events. So he avoided a conviction, but at a political and public cost. What worked in Court did not work out of Court.
There were many problems with the Thorpe trial, not just an idiotic judge and a woeful summing-up. That was an extra, and when it is taken away, serious problems still remain. Why was there no lesser charge of conspiracy? Why did the Crown not foresee the problems with Bessell’s newspaper deal? Why was the Crown not prepared for three of the defendants not give evidence?
And had Thorpe been acquitted with no judge for Cook and others (and us) to mock?
Well, imagine that scandal.
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