It is one of the true privileges of my job that I am occasionally invited to places where I don’t belong. Mostly, these are interesting but largely unremarkable events like the launch of a new society or an annual award ceremony for some sort of magazine or advocacy group.
I go along primarily to feed my curiosity about a world that is otherwise alien to me since such events are invariably held in one of London’s many private clubs to which I’ve never desired nor sought access. It is said, of course, that these no-longer “smoke-filled-rooms” are where the fate of the country is decided. This may well be true although, given the average age of the people you meet in such places, I very much doubt anything is decided there at all.
In any case, it was following one such invitation that I recently found myself having lunch at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court for England & Wales, which tries the most serious cases in the country. There is, apparently, an age-old tradition of inviting interesting people from various backgrounds to speak with and entertain the judges who spend most of the rest of their lives dealing, in excruciating detail, with some of the worst things human beings do to each other.
Before lunch, a dozen other guests and I are welcomed at a brief champagne reception. It is, as these occasions often are, a distinctly posh affair: at one point a judge regaled us with an amusing anecdote about disciplining her teenagers, now twice her size, and I, attempting to join in the comedy, turned to one of the other guests and said “Imagine being told off for leaving your socks lying around by a Judge!”. He laughed charitably, before adding “Actually, my father was a judge…”.
While we joke and share anecdotes, the judges themselves are, unmistakably, at work. They do not drink, of course, and beneath their friendly, sociable demeanours there is the sort of steel without which they could not do their job. Sometimes, the people in front of them are hardened criminals without an ounce of remorse. I imagine it feels good to throw the book at them. A cut and dried case of the King’s justice being properly administered, the perpetrators punished and victims offered “closure”.
But there are other cases too. In an otherwise light-hearted speech, one judge recalled a case in which a young boy from an extremely difficult family background with severe learning difficulties was given a knife by an older man and told to stab someone. He did, badly injuring the victim, who ended up bleeding to death by the door of his family home with the words “Don’t let my mother see me like this” on his lips.
“This way for lunch, Mr Kisin.”
As in all murder cases, by law, if the defendant is found guilty the sentence must be life imprisonment. Over this, the judges have no choice. Their discretion comes in when deciding the minimum sentence, the period of time the defendant will definitely serve before being eligible for parole. How does one weigh the murder victim and the anguish of his family against whatever it is we feel for a teenager badly let down by his parents and knowingly exploited by a criminal gang whose murder he is now serving time for? In this instance, the minimum sentence given was 12 years, towards the lower end of the available options.
The perpetrator could be back on the streets by his mid-20s. “He’ll be a very different person by then” the judge reassures me. Of that I have no doubt. But are we certain that after over a decade in the company of older violent criminals his transformation will be for the better? “If it had been my son who had bled out on my front porch, you’d struggle to convince me of that,” I think to myself.
Coffee is served in exquisite little cups.
As I wrestle with these hypothetical scenarios and the emotions they generate, simplistic and contradictory slogans race through my mind: “Life should mean life!”, “Everyone deserves a second chance!” and so on. These are my brain’s attempts to make sense of a situation that doesn’t lend itself to comforting soundbites. No clarity emerges but it’s a stimulating intellectual exercise.
One by one, the judges begin to excuse themselves as they return to their ongoing cases. Guests are invited to join them in the courtroom and I am one of the lucky few who get to see a verdict being delivered. We are ushered quickly into a court room not much bigger than a family restaurant in size and take up the remaining handful of seats. The room is plain and functional. There is no public gallery to speak of. Other than the wigs worn by the judge and lawyers, there is little of the pomp and grandeur one sees in Hollywood courtroom dramas. A solitary and clearly very junior journalist is taking notes in the corner on his laptop. Two teenage boys sit silently in the dock behind a plastic barrier, accused of murder. Their faces are expressionless and remain so as the jury is welcomed in.
Within minutes they are both found guilty and led away. The judge thanks the jury and assures them the pair will be given long minimum terms when they are sentenced next month. They stabbed a 16-year-old to death: a case of mistaken identity in a gang turf war. After the murder, one of the perpetrators wrote lyrics on his phone describing how he chased his target on foot until the victim tripped and fell. Together with the other attacker, they stabbed the helpless, innocent boy 15 times as he lay on the ground with huge knives, now commonly carried by gangs in London, leaving him to die in the street.
“Do they deserve a second chance?”
This pondering is interrupted by a commotion to my left. A small group huddles together, sobbing and hugging. I’ve been sitting next to the victim’s family this entire time. This is no intellectual exercise to them.
The victim’s mother will later tell the media that her family are refugees from Afghanistan. Her husband was killed by the Taliban who then attempted to kidnap the boy, her only child. They fled for their lives. And here she is, in an empty courtroom in a foreign land, thanking her legal team. She will never see her son again.
“Is this closure?”
The moment is over in seconds and before I know it I am outside the building, walking to the nearest Tube station with one of the other guests, chatting away about his business and mine like nothing happened. As we say our goodbyes, I am left alone with my thoughts. The only stand-out among the cacophony of emotions swirling around inside me is “If that was my son, I’d want them both in prison for the rest of their lives, no minimum fucking sentence and no fucking parole”.
I am suddenly very glad that I don’t have to make these utterly impossible decisions. And grateful that there are better people than me out there who sign up to make them every single day.
You write extremely well, Konstantin and I can absolutely empathise with everything you write. These people do what so many could never do but there seems little rehabilitation to be had in many prisons these days. As for the gangs, I feel young people from dysfunctional families and who have terrible home lives have no lives at all. Everyone needs to have people around them who love and care for them and when they have nothing of this nature at home, they turn to gangs who they see as friends, sincere, fun, everything they desire and then, often, it all becomes very dark and bleak. When I was young, we had lots to do. Although I was from a working class home, my grandma paid for me to have piano lessons which were hard work and the teacher was relentless in pushing me to do better, barking out the right note to play which I failed to
do, as he answered the door. I was determined to learn the piano and went for 8 years, feeling sick en route to the teacher. We had events on at church which I loved, still an atheist but no one can
accuse me of not trying. We had the Brownies, the Girl Guides, endless plays with music we put on at the Junior school. We went swimming, walked, had picnics up on Runcorn Hill. We didn't have a car, but we had legs, nothing stopped us. We played out and made up daft games. All these things have vanished, all gone. These pastimes and interests kept thousands of children out of trouble. I may enjoy wine and gin and may be a bit of renegade, I was never in trouble with the law or anyone really and neither were my friends and family. Thank you, Konstantin for all you write and do to make the world a better place. You are a gentleman and a scholar. X
Thank you Konstantin for a very well-written, emotionally articulate article. Excruciating to read the plight of the Afghan mother whose husband was murdered by the Taliban, whose 15 year old only child was murdered in our country by gang members. Perhaps in the city where Sadiq Khan, in an interview with Gareth Baker MP, so unashamedly and repeatedly lies about its safety. You see, it is one thing talking about 'life means life' or a 'death sentence' for these murdering gang members, but I would like the rats who predictably facilitate these atrocities being held to account properly. As per Thomas Sowell: It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.