As British readers will know, a London police officer – PC Simon Harwood – has just been found not guilty by a jury of manslaughter.

The incident that led to his trial received wide publicity at the time in 2009.

There is a widespread disturbance in the City of London against the G20 summit.  In one spot demonstrators stand a few yards from a police cordon. A middle aged man wanders into the space. He is, it turns out, Ian Tomlinson, an innocent newspaper seller on his way back to the hostel he lives in.

Someone filming on their phone catches the incident.

A man in riot gear emerges from the group of policeman without apparent warning. He strikes Tomlinson from behind on the legs, then pushes him forward. Tomlinson falls to the ground and is left there by the officer, who returns to the group he emerged from. Someone from the crowd comes out to help the man to his feet. Within hours he has died.

Two legal processes later return apparently conflicting verdicts. A jury at a coroner’s inquest said the man died by unlawful killing. The trial of PC Harwood finds him not guilty.

After the acquittal it is revealed that PC Harwood has a record of complaints against him, some involving the sort of behaviour described here. Most complaints remain allegations but curiously at one stage in his career he resigns as a police officer then is immediately engaged as a civilian employee by the same force. Later he becomes a police officer with a neighbouring force and transfers back as an officer to his original employer, the Metropolitan Police.

In a different time and a different place I was a member of another jury.

It was a simple, some might say routine, case.

A young male driver was accused of two alternative counts of, in effect, causing or contributing to the death of a woman in another car.

His car and the other vehicle collided at a junction where a number of accidents had occurred. He was driving too fast and crashed into the other vehicle. A middle-aged woman in the other car, the mother of some of the other passengers, died.

During the trial the young man’s lawyer painted a picture of a single aberration by an otherwise serious young man who was a student at a critical stage of his studies. A guilty verdict, especially on the more serious charge, could have a serious impact on his future.  His girlfriend, who was a passenger in his car, testified on his behalf.

The family of the dead woman attended the two days of the trial and were visible to the jury.  Not surprisingly, they looked distraught at various stages of the proceedings – the description of the accident (some of them had been in it), the expert witness who had calculated the excessive speed of the other car, the defence lawyer’s characterisation of his client.

We were told by the judge that we could return a guilty or not guilty verdict on either charge. After an hour or two’s deliberation we gave the young man the benefit of the doubt and found him guilty of the lesser charge. The legalities of it slip my mind now but our verdict was akin to saying he was guilty of careless driving but not much more.

When the verdict was announced the young man was required to return later with his driving licence (which he should have had with him) for sentencing. The jury was also required to attend. The family of the dead woman were, again, in the public gallery.

Before the sentence was given, it was revealed that the guilty man had previous offences for dangerous driving and speeding.

If that moment could have been frozen in time it would have shown

  • gasps and looks of disbelief on the faces of the family of the dead woman in the public gallery
  • one of the women in the group, probably a daughter or daughter-in-law, crying into a handkerchief
  • another looking accusingly at the jury as if to say we had betrayed them
  • a collective feeling of unease amongst the jurors
  • a blank look on the defendant’s face
  • the judge looking at his papers: he must have seen this many times before.

As one of the jurors I shared that collective unease.  I still feel it. I wonder how the jury in the Simon Harwood case are feeling.

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