Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 11:31 UK

Jury-free court case makes history in England

By Jeremy Britton
BBC News

John Twomey
John Twomey faced four trials over the robbery

The conviction of four men for a £1.75m armed robbery at Heathrow marks the end of a historic case. After allegations of jury tampering at a previous trial, the case was the first criminal trial for more than 350 years to be heard in a Crown Court in England and Wales without a jury.

For those accustomed to the drama of a conventional court case, recent proceedings in the Old Bailey made for an unusual spectacle.

Gone was the jury of 12 tasked with weighing up the arguments of defence and prosecution.

Instead, the court often resembled a legal version of the X Factor, with a high-powered judge - Mr Justice Treacy rather than Simon Cowell in this case - considering impassively the presentations before him.

Evidence often had the air of a quiet conversation between old friends, with none of the normal rhetoric directed at juries.

Some barristers did their best to emphasise the sense of occasion.

"We're breaking history," said Sam Stein QC as the trial started in the vaulted surroundings of court 35 of the Royal Courts of Justice.

2004: Armed raid on warehouse in Heathrow. £1.75m taken from vault
2005: Seven on trial for conspiracy to steal. Two acquitted; no verdict reached on four defendants; John Twomey did not give evidence due to health reasons
2007: Trial of Twomey, Peter Blake and Barry Hibberd collapses after jury fails to reach verdicts
2009: Trial of Twomey, Blake, Hibberd and Glenn Cameron collapses after five months amid allegations of jury tampering
2010: Same four defendants face first jury-less criminal trial held in England and Wales since 1641

But a group of supporters of the defendants outside court were less impressed, waving placards saying "No jury = no justice".

It was a series of unfortunate events that led to this unprecedented trial - the fourth relating to a robbery in February 2004 in which a group of gun-wielding masked men raided Menzies World Cargo warehouse, seizing £1.75m in foreign currency kept in a vault.

Three previous trials collapsed, with the one in 2007 ending after a juror complained of being "stressed" and refused to return to court after a bank holiday.

Then after six months of evidence in 2008, allegations of jury tampering led to the third jury trial being abandoned.

The prosecution, fearing the same might happen in the next trial, successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal to allow an unprecedented trial without a jury in England and Wales.

The Appeal Court agreed there was a "real and present" danger of jury tampering, and considered that even a £6m package of protective measures by the police would not prevent it.

Despite defence objections that they had not been provided with any evidence of jury interference, the first jury-less trial went ahead.

Trial number four started in January 2010 at the Royal Courts of Justice with Mr Justice Treacy in charge.

The defendants were John Twomey, 61, Peter Blake, 57, Glenn Cameron, 50, and Barry Hibberd, 33.

They were all on bail despite being accused of a violent armed robbery, and mixed freely with their lawyers, friends and supporters.

Demonstrators outside court at start of the case, January 2010.
Protesters appeared with "no justice" banners outside court in January

It was hard to imagine them as the men in masks who had terrorised staff at the Heathrow warehouse in 2004.

But the jury-less trial was not without its own problems. Halfway through the trial, Blake went on the run just before he was due to start giving evidence.

When, after a nationwide police appeal in which he was described as "dangerous", Blake handed himself back in the following week, explaining: "I needed some clothes."

As a result of his temporary disappearance the trial was moved from the Royal Courts of Justice to the more secure setting of court 12 at the Old Bailey.

Here the atmosphere was curiously stifled as the defendants gave their evidence one by one.

Twomey and Blake both started their evidence with a firm denial they had ever been involved in any jury tampering.

No 'brass knobs'

Each time the judge stopped them in their tracks - telling Twomey he wanted to hear his evidence not his opinions.

When it came to barristers' closing speeches, the judge suggested to barristers he did not want any ornate language - "brass knobs" as he described it.

Rumpole-like phrases that lawyers normally deploy in court such as "it might be thought" and "doesn't it seem to you?" were notably absent.

And at the end of the trial Mr Justice Treacy did not give the usual summing up as there was no jury present to remind of the facts.

"The time has come for me to consider my verdicts and deliver a reasoned judgement," he simply said - and left court for an undisclosed period.

With no days lost due to jury sickness the whole trial had taken place in less than half the time of the previous trials - just three months rather than six.

But the costs of this series of trials is said to have risen to more than £20m.

Empty seats

Some senior barristers are concerned the trial of Twomey and others has created an unwelcome precedent that could open the door to further similar trials.

Paul Mendelle QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, told the BBC: "A body of law might build up to make it more and more possible for a trial without a jury to take place."

The Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that at least one other Crown court judge-only trial, currently subject to reporting restrictions, is in the pipeline.

CPS lawyer Neil Sweet said the Heathrow robbery trial was no different - apart from its scale - to what happened in magistrate courts around the country every week.

But the 12 empty seats were a reminder of what is lost when a jury is absent - some would say the colour, the drama and the soul of a trial goes missing. Critics would say the justice too.

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