Thinking about the Jeremy Thorpe trial

26th June 2018

Well, of course, Jeremy Thorpe was guilty.

That, at least, is the view of all reasonable and sensible people who have heard of Thorpe and of that 1979 trial, which has now been dramatised by the BBC.

(“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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12 thoughts on “Thinking about the Jeremy Thorpe trial”

  1. History is a different place: Who in power wanted to get a clear result from this trial, what could have been the risk? A man with an illegal gun and a dead dog cannot be ignored, but there were few other complications, funny things do happen at night in the country, and the guilty got punished.
    Then there were so many problems with homosexual acts being illegal, there is always another involved, if not several over the years. Also perhaps two-timing married MPs and others with cosy domestic arrangements in the country and in London during the week were involved. Who could be sure how far it would go? In those days the pubic had to be continually reassured that the elite was honest and ‘in charge’. Nobody died, nobody else was likely to. Yes the press liked a good scandal but at least they targetted a ‘deserving’ case. Interesting that most politicians cold shouldered Thorpe when he was found ‘not guilty’, that was not fair, he was declared honest enough for the rest of us.

  2. 1. Jeremy Thorpe was a member of the Establishment. There’s long been a view that the trial was ‘influenced’ by the Establishment with a view to preventing a conviction. (Compare Thorpe’s trial with that of Stephen Ward; there the Establishment went to great lengths to secure a conviction.)

    2. The New Statesman published an article by one of the jurors in the Thorpe trial explaining the jury’s view that there had indeed been a conspiracy, but they were unable to convict on a charge that hadn’t been laid. The Attorney General promptly sued the NS and its editor, Bruce Page, for contempt. This trial was held before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, and others; some hours into the the LCJ asked who Bruce Page was. Lord Widgery at this time was unquestionably demented.

    The Crown lost this trial. Subsequently, the 1981 Contempt of Court Act put contempt of court on a statuary basis; previously it had been a common law offence. Section 8 of the Act made it an offence to make public any jury discussions. As a result, jury research in the UK is impossible; we cannot know how juries reach their decisions, or even if their reasoning is sound.

    1. On (2), you will see I link in the post above to Robertson’s point saying what you say.

      On (1), there is a problem: the establishment do not like jury trials. And the establishment did not know Thorpe would not give evidence, or even that Carmen would be so devastating, or that Bessell would be such a poor witness. So I would say that you posit a conspiracy theory, and one which depends on a number of factors outside the control of the establishment.

      1. (2) I saw the article in the Guardian. I’m not a lawyer; my interest is more in the mental and physical health of political leaders. Lord Widgery was clearly dementing at the time of the contempt trial. I have suggested that he was dementing when he produced the Widgery Report (or ‘whitewash’) into the events of Bloody Sunday in N Ireland.
        I wrote about this here:

        On (1); I’m not at all a believer in conspiracy theories, preferring cock-ups. But it’s very hard to understand just how the trial judge at Thorpe’s trial could have given the jury such an unbalanced summing up. Peter Cook’s final sentence says it all; ‘you will now retire to carefully consider your verdict of not guilty’. Likewise, in the Stephen Ward trial, it’s hard to believe that the Establishment weren’t involved. Or in the much earlier case in N Ireland, the trial of Ian Hay Gordon for the (alleged) murder of Patricia Curran.

        1. I think the summing-up was atrocious but even it had been exemplary the evidence before the jury was always weak for the conspiracy to murder charge. My worry is that we have all been distracted by Peter Cook’s brilliance.

          1. That’s fair enough. Yet the jurors were agreed that there was a conspiracy to intimidate Norman Scott. So, why wasn’t this added to the ‘charge sheet’ as a sort of blunderbuss method of attack?

            Further, while you say the Crown didn’t know that Thorpe would not give evidence, how can be be certain of this? Yes, I appreciate that this is back into conspiracy theory territory, but I’m one who holds the view that the Establishment will protect its own, and condemn others, and if necessary manipulate the system for its own ends. (In the Patricia Curran trial, the defence barrister took the brief on the condition that he would not have to cross examine Patricia’s brother who had found her body. Isn’t that a bit odd?)

          2. I’d say I was very sceptical of the law at times; it’s problems comprehending, for example, statistics and its inability or refusal to admit this and ask for help; the law’s inability to realise for so long that the police weren’t always as pure as the driven snow.

  3. Your analysis seems almost exactly correct. I would only cavil at ‘it was clever of Thorpe to elect not to give evidence’. Are you sure that that decision was a manifestation of Thorpe’s intelligence, rather than Carman’s?

    I fully agree, though, that, given the evidence before them, the jury reached the correct verdict on the charges they had to consider. I doubt if the summing-up made any difference: it was so obviously ‘woeful’ that any intelligent juror would have discounted it. If there was ‘establishment’ skulduggery (and I have no idea whether there was or not), it was at the point when the lesser offence of conspiracy to intimidate was kept off the charge sheet.

    1. I agree. Whatever Carmen may have said to Thorpe it was still Thorpe’s decision not to give evidence. And Thorpe often ignored good advice. But yes: a manifestation of Carmen’s intelligence.

      Yes, the lesser charge should have been brought. But imagine: the jury had convicted only on the lower charge – would conspiracy theorists now be saying that was all part of an establishment plot to make it easier for the jury not to convict on the murder charge…

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