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The Wall of Silence

LAW IN ACTION
Hoodies
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 10 June 1600 BST
On Radio 4 and online

What can the police and courts do when witnesses are too scared to testify - especially to the most violent of crimes?

It's becoming one of the most serious problems in the criminal justice system: murders and other violent offences, which happen in front of eye witnesses - but few or none will give evidence.

That's what happened when Leon Adams was shot dead in the Ladbroke Grove area of West London in January 2006.

His mother, Anita Hudson, tells the programme how within an hour of the killing Leon's fiancee was receiving calls from his friends asking about him.

They evidently knew that the murder had taken place - long before Anita did. Yet none of them was willing to give evidence.

Warned to keep quiet

Anita worked closely with officers from Operation Trident, the team set up to investigate killings in the black community in London - despite warnings from Leon's friends.

"We had received some calls saying you mustn't talk to the police, because the person that did this to Leon is very dangerous. Be very careful," Anita recalls.

"Keep it quiet. You don't want to mess around with this person."

She asked his friends who the killer was.

"No, no, no," they replied, "We're not talking. We're not talking."

Law In Action found a similar reaction on the streets of North London, with rare access to Operation Trident at work. Clive Coleman accompanied Inspector Dave Rock and a team of officers making an appeal for information in Camden Town.

Gilbeys Yard
Hassan was shot in Gilbeys Yard, Camden

They were looking for witnesses to the killing of Sharmaarke Hassan, a 17-year-old boy of Somali origin, who had been shot in the head exactly one week before. But passing youths - who seem to have been acquainted with Sharmaarke Hassan - refused to talk to the police.

"They don't want to be seen to be the snitch," one officer says. "That's the thing about it."

A risk to fair trials?

Inspector Rock and his team tried to encourage testimony by talking about the protections available to witnesses.

These protections - which must be approved by the judge - include giving evidence anonymously, and special measures such as using video links or voice modulation.

But barrister Nigel Rumfitt QC warns that these measures carry risks to fair trials.

"That's where the danger arises," he says, "when the judge and prosecution in good faith decide to withhold information and in fact that could produce a miscarriage of justice."

Inspector Dave Rock and Clive Coleman
Inspector Rock of Operation Trident speaks to LIA's Clive Coleman

For example, he says it can be impossible for the defence to challenge an anonymous witness who claims to have been in a certain place at a certain time.

Other eye witnesses effectively can't testify that the anonymous witness wasn't there.

Protecting anonymity

However, Detective Chief Superintendent Helen Ball, who heads Trident, says such measures are essential to successful prosecutions.

"It's vitally important that witnesses can be confident to give their truthful evidence about what it is that they've seen or heard," she says.

"And in every case the court looks very carefully at the background circumstances of that witness and what the motivation is for them needing to have their anonymity protected."

In the next few weeks the House of Lords is expected to deliver a key ruling on the legality of anonymity in criminal trials.

Meanwhile, it seems the man who was suspected of shooting Leon Adams was himself shot dead in Trinidad.

Police are still searching for his accomplices - and witnesses are few on the ground.

Your e-mails

We had several comments in response to last week's programme on increasing litigiousness at universities.

Joy Phillips wrote:

"I decided to take the step to do a Master's Degree. I carefully chose what I thought would best meet my criteria, and enrolled with one of the colleges of the University of London on July 2006. The entire experience has been a nightmare, as just over 12 months ago the university made major cutbacks which included the course that I was on. An attempt was made to refer the matter the the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, but astonishingly one has to have the permission from the university to make a complaint about them. I am not an extremist; just someone who has waited a long time to do something they had dreamed of, made a lot of sacrifices to do it, only to have the experience turn very sour, and feeling that there is no justice within the system."

Dennis Farrington wrote:

"Interested to hear your story on student complaints. Last year, through UCELNET (see at the OxCHEPS website, New College, Oxford) published a new 'student statement' circulated to NUS etc, having co-authored 'The Law of Higher Education' (Oxford, 2006) and somewhat irritated by a big law firm producing a highly commercial student contract for universities. Agree with Ruth Deech about lawyers' involvement, but it's just as bad on the university side."

Coming Up

In next week's Law In Action we'll be examining a key question that affects many trials: just how reliable is human memory?

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, Law In Action would like to hear from you.

You can contact us by email at lawinaction@bbc.co.uk or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS or you can call us on 020 8752 5646.

Law In Action was broadcast on Tuesday 10 June 2008 at 1600 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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