Most unsurprising headline of the year: ‘Police exonerated over Moat death’.

A Coroner’s Jury had found that the police had done nothing wrong in the run-up to Raul Moat’s suicide after his killing spree last winter, even with regard to the deployment of Tasers that had not been approved by the Home Office and in the use of which they had little or no training. It had been suggested during the inquest that using a Taser on him might have caused Moat to involuntarily fire the weapon he had been holding to his head.

Well, Moat had killed; he was indisputedly armed; he had attempted suicide before; there was little more the police could have done to try to take him alive. So the Jury’s verdict was probably, on the whole, correct, though the malfunctioning of recording equipment in the minutes running up to Moat’s death might have conspiracy theorists muttering into their Red Bull. The problem is that the above headline could have been written before the inquest even began.

Nobody likes a crooked copper, and put a policeman on trial for taking a bribe, or tipping off the News Of The World, or running a scam, or fiddling their expenses, and so long as the evidence is reliable, a Jury will convict. An internal investigation may have concluded that Sir Paul Stevens did nothing wrong in accepting free hospitality from a friend who owned Champneys Health Resort, but if he hadn’t resigned the public would have taken a dim view of his behaviour, whatever his peers thought.

It’s a different matter, though, when police are accused of assault or murder, of prisoners, or suspects, or just innocent members of the public, like Jean Charles de Menezes or Harry Stanley. Then it seems that whatever the evidence, whatever amount of recklessness, negligence or viciousness is involved, the police are given the benefit of the doubt, and Juries seem incapable of guarding us against our guardians. It’s as though there is a collective belief among Juries that if you get yourself killed by the police – whether you’re shot or have your head cracked open in a cell – it’s your own fault; that to find an officer guilty of murder, or even manslaughter, would undermine the whole system of policing and leave us all trembling in our beds at night.

The Menezes affair was one of the most disgraceful examples of psychotic, trigger-happy, gung-ho incompetence there has ever been in this country and the police accounts of what happened were a farrago of lies and disinformation. An innocent man, behaving perfectly normally, was shot 7 times (that is 7 times, yes, 7 times) in the head with dum-dum bullets, despite the fact that it should have been obvious to anyone with rudimentary vision that he couldn’t have been carrying anything more dangerous than a rolled up newspaper. Yet as far as we know the officers responsible are still running around with firearms in their pockets, or still running surveillance operations, or still supposedly protecting us from terrorism. The Inquest Jury even went to the lengths of stating that the senior officer in charge of the operation, Cressida Dick, had done nothing wrong, which is akin to suggesting that there is no financial crisis or that the Japanese tsunami just caused a bit of localised flooding. Cressida Dick still holds a senior position in the Metropolitan Police, and has been been spoken of as a potential Commissioner. So basically none of us are safe.

The Menezes jury might at least have had the pathetic excuse that, after the 7/7 bombings, and with the threat of terrorism ever-present, the police could be forgiven a bit of over-reaction, despite the accompanying incompetence and dishonesty. The Jury that cleared officers of any culpability in the death of Harry Stanley had no such excuse. Stanley had gone to pick up a table leg his brother had repaired for him, which he had been carrying in a plastic bag, and stopped off at a pub for a drink on the way home. Someone, no one knows who, tipped off the police that Stanley was carrying asawn off shotgun. On his way home he was confronted by armed police, who shot him when he appeared to be acting ‘threateningly’. Police said they shouted a warning, witnesses claimed they didn’t. Even if they had, Stanley might have been forgiven for not reacting in the way the police might have wished – he was, after all, carrying a chair leg and had no reason to think a bunch of uniformed psychopaths were after his blood. The police, in turn, had no reason, other than that anonymous tip-off, to think Stanley was armed, or had done, or was about to do anything wrong.

Police officers were charged, but the jury returned not guilty verdicts. Not guilty of anything. Clearly the jurors thought Stanley shouldn’t have been in a pub or on the streets with a table leg in a plastic bag. It’s a warning to us all. If we carry anything even remotely shaped like a weapon of any description, it should be uncovered, raised clearly above our heads, and we should be preceded along the street by a man with a red flag and a loudhailer shouting “Table leg, not a shotgun’ or “Pineapple, not a hand grenade”.

This problem with Juries and psycho cops goes back as far as I can remember  – to the Stephen Waldorf case in 1983. An innocent man, in the wrong car, who looked like a suspect, who was shot five times and whoul have been killed had not an officer's gun not run out of ammunition. After falling out of the car that officer then pistol whipped him around the head. The cops were cleared.

And it’s not only extreme cases of deaths and shooting. The assault on a woman by Sergeant Delroy Smellie at a demo last year, caught on camera, was a disgusting piece of casual police thuggery. Yet Smellie, who claimed he was in fear of being assaulted by a woman two thirds his size and carrying a carton of drink, albeit giving him an earful, was cleared of any offence. What on earth was going through the minds of those jurors? Is society so at risk from mouthy female demonstrators of slight build that beating them with a telescopic truncheon is the only way of preserving order?

Now there may be a better system of administering justice than through the use of Juries, but if there is, I haven’t heard a good argument for one yet, and I’m inclined to oppose any attempt to introduce judge-only trials, even where the technical nature of the evidence might tax the average Jury. But clearly there is a problem when Juries are confronted by officers charged with offences relating to events like those above. There seems to be such a stubborn unwillingness to convict, whatever the evidence of culpability, that one is almost drawn to the conclusion that the choice of Jurors in these trials or inquests is not as random as we are led to believe…

Conspiracy theory? I hate the very idea. Yet that nagging feeling of doubt will only be removed when a Jury finally has the courage to recognise that the police have to live by the same rules as the rest of us, and that their negligence or incompetence should be punished just as surely as any civilian would be if their criminally reckless behaviour caused death or injury to an innocent member of the public.

Of course, the conviction would probably be overturned by judges in the Court of Appeal, but that’s a different matter…
One of the contributory factors to the overwhelming wave of gloom was the death last week of Troy Davis in the US state of Georgia. I say death, but the most accurate description is judicial murder.

Execution by whatever method, in a supposedly democratic society, is always judicial murder of course. Using killing to punish the crime of killing – when killing is itself perceived to be the ultimate crime – is a paradox that supporters of the death penalty have never succeeded in properly explaining, except by recourse to the biblical call for ‘an eye for an eye’. It suggests that killing is not, after all, so bad, as long as enough people think it’s OK. It certainly leaves no room for reform or rehabilitation.

The USA, which so laughably prides itself on its democratic credentials, is one of the world’s great killers (and I’m talking only about within its own borders here). In the league table of executions it’s up there with the world’s great beacons of democracy, like China and Saudi Arabia. And, surprise surprise, the majority of those judicially killed in the USA are black, and the majority of those killings take place in the Southern states, like Texas and Georgia.

Troy Davis was black, naturally.

Now I don’t know whether Davis was guilty (though if he was, killing him would still be morally indefensible). But the details of his case ought to have been enough to cause any supporter of the death penalty to have a few sneaking doubts. Since his initial conviction – achieved without any forensic or DNA evidence – eight of the ten ‘eye witnesses’ withdrew their testimony, claiming they were pressured by the police into incriminating Davis. A witness had come forward claiming that a fellow prisoner had admitted to being the real perpetrator. Members of the original jury had testified that had they been in possession of these facts, they would not have convicted.

An open and shut case for a retrial, at least, one would have thought. But the US judicial system doesn’t work like that, especially in the south. A conviction is a conviction, however flawed. Your defence lawyer could have been a mentally retarded spider monkey in a clown suit; the judge could have been wearing a KKK bedsheet; the (black) defendant could have been recorded on CCTV munching a burger at Disneyland at the time of the offence… It doesn’t matter, they must have got it right the first time, so even the Supreme Court cops out.

It’s true that a number of Death Row prisoners have had their convictions overturned in recent years as a result of the more advanced analysis of DNA evidence now available. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, there was no DNA evidence in the first place, so that avenue was not available. As far as the witnesses were concerned… well…

The fact is, the victim of the crime for which Davis was convicted was a cop. In the wake of the crime, his fellow officers wanted a scapegoat and as is so often the case (not just in the States), having someone to blame as quickly as possible is the most important objective. The first person in line is often the unlucky one on whom all attention becomes focused, and logic, commonsense and good investigative practice goes out of the window. The perceived perpetrator becomes the criminal because of the need for immediate gratification; minds become blocked against any suspicion that the real killer is getting away, because that would mean gratification would be delayed. I’m sure that once that need for quick gratification kicked in the cops really believed Davis was the killer, because they needed to, whatever evidence was lacking. And in the absence of evidence, because of their no doubt sincere, but hysterical and dishonest belief, the only solution was to create the evidence. Hence the eight witnesses who later recanted.

Having been the probable victim of the cops’ and prosecutors’ psychological failings, Davis’s even greater tragic problem – apart from being black, of course – was that the judicial system could not admit, even in the face of the most blatant evidence, that the forces of law and order (cops, prosecutors and judges) are so flawed that they could conspire in the conviction of an innocent man simply because they needed someone to convict. This is as true in Britain as it is in the US – consider how long it took the Guildford 4, the Birmingham 6 and the Maguire 7 to overturn their convictions. They were fortunate that Britain had dispensed with the death penalty; Davis had no chance, being both black and convicted in one of the majority of US states that still kill prisoners.

It was clear to anyone with half a brain cell still intact that Davis’s conviction was unsafe, yet the need of the police, judicial system and victim’s family for vengeance overrode any sense of justice or moral responsibility – proof enough not only that the death penalty, setting aside any moral qualms, is indefensible in its irrevocability, but also that victims or victims’ families, however much sympathy we may have for their suffering, should never, ever be allowed a role in judicial proceedings.

Even more shocking and shameful, though, despite the pleas of the usual suspects, like Amnesty and the ACLU, and the less predictable intervention of figures such as the Pope, was the total lack of any political will to challenge the murder of Davis. The majority of the population in favour of the death penalty may have been falling in recent years, but it is still perceived that there are no votes to be won by opposing it (but some to won, as Bill Clinton surmised, by imposing it).

The Governor of Georgia may not have had the power in that state to commute the death sentence, but he may have had an effect had he put pressure on the Parole Board to do so. The same applies to the President. That Obama (supposedly an opponent of the death penalty) did not even make a comment on the affair, let alone lend his support to the campaign to reprieve Davis, is a measure of how unspeakably cowardly this great hope of American liberalism has become during his three years in office (don’t forget Guantanamo, Armenia and Palestine as well). Well, I suppose an election year is approaching. What’s the weight of one dead, probably innocent black man on the scales of political opportunism, when measured against the weight of the votes of ‘middle America’. Is America’s black population suddenly going to rise up as one and vote in revenge for Bachman, Perry or Romney …?

The small  fall in support for the death penalty (64% now, down from 68% in 2001) is believed to be at least partly due to the convictions, mentioned earlier, that have been overturned as a result of new DNA evidence. But supporters of execution have a twinkle in their eye since they argue that the same advances in DNA technology now make convictions safer, and fewer ‘wrong’ people are likely to be killed. But, of course, there was no DNA evidence in Davis’s case … no evidence at all, in fact. So what can help people like him, other than the moral courage and political conviction of those elected, supposedly, to serve all, not just fearful white reactionaries…?

There are few things that make me pleased to British. The general opposition of the political class to the death penalty (with some notable exceptions) in the face of public support for it is one of them. I hope a possible Tory landslide at the next election doesn’t change that.


I don't know whether anything specific has brought it on, but I have
recently been feeling the ever more closely looming presence of a
relentlessly growing, grimy snowball of despair, just waiting to be let
loose like the rock pursuing Indy at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Every morning and evening drive accompanied by the morale-sapping gloom of
Today or PM, every sidelong glance at the BBC News website, every lunchtime
flick through the pages of The Independent, every fortnightly dose of
Private Eye makes my head fall almost lifeless into my hands. I recall the
Labour Party¹s post-election victory party of 1997, and the shallow sound of
D.REAM's Things Can Only Get Better being sprayed over that embarrassing
gathering of moral and political bankrupts like a well-fermented golden
shower and thinking, ''Yeah, well, at least they can't get any worse.'' I was

We often regard time as a progression, and assume, somehow, that as time
progresses, so does society. Things do only get better in the long run, at
least. Despite ups and downs and hiccoughs and steps backward and the
occasional trip, and even some blind, stupid or evil driver taking the
charabanc over the edge and nose first into the ravine.

But I've read enough physics now to know that time isn't like that at all.
It's just a part of the chaos of the cosmos, a single dimension in a
multi-dimensional, multi-universe entity governed by quantum uncertainty in
which 'progression' has no meaning.

Perhaps society (life?) mirrors the cosmos in that respect. It's just chaos,
an infinite butterfly effect, every event, every action having unknowable
consequences, good or bad, for an unknowable length of time across
unknowable distances. The original metaphor of a butterfly flapping its
wings on one side of the world causing a hurricane on the other surely has
its obverse side: a hurricane on one side of the world causing effects that
knock a butterfly on the other side off its perch and straight into the
mouth of a mantis.

Cheerful, eh? But how else to explain a world in which so much achievement,
so much good, even, is so impossible to disentangle from so much poisonous
human failing, so much natural destructive chaos