Mercy for earl snared by paper into drug deal

THE EARL of Hardwicke and his former business partner walked free from court yesterday, despite their drug dealing conviction, after a jury said their "ensnaring" by the media merited "extreme mercy".

The men would not have been convicted if the law had been different, the jury said. "Had we been allowed to take the extreme provocation into account we would have reached a different verdict," jurors said in a note. Judge Timothy Pontius accepted their plea and suspended the sentences.

In a trial that saw the investigations editor of the News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, defending his actions almost as much as the men in the dock, the jury heard that the Conservative peer and his partner, Stefan Thwaites, had snorted cocaine in a suite at the Savoy Hotel, unaware they were being secretly recorded.

A day later, Martin Hicks of the prosecution team said, the 28-year-old earl met the man he believed to be "Sheikh Mohammed", and one of his make- believe aides, to hand over a second consignment.

The jury found Hardwicke guilty of one count of being concerned in the supply of 2.44 grams of cocaine to Mr Mahmood on 2 September last year. They also convicted him of supplying 1.49 grams to the journalist a day later.

Thwaites, 29, who used to help the earl to run a south London scooter franchise, was found guilty of supplying the 2.44 grams of the class A drug.

However, after the jurors returned their verdicts, they took the highly unusual step of declaring in a note: "The jury would like to say the circumstances surrounding this case have made it very difficult for us to reach a decision."

Both men seemed stunned at the verdicts but their fearsturned to elation when the judge said that, while prison sentences were inevitable, theywould be suspended.

"I have concluded with some degree of hesitation that the circumstances are, by virtue of the jury's clearly stated views, so exceptional that I am justified in suspending the operation of the prison sentences," he said.

The two years received by Hardwicke and the 15 months given to Thwaites will be suspended for two years. But, the judge added, if it had not been for the jury's plea and the way the men were entrapped, they would have been looking at up to four years in jail.

The defence team had attacked the character of Mr Mahmood, describing him as "slippery as an eel and about as treacherous as a snake".

During the trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in London, the jury heard three days of evidence from Mr Mahmood, who denied inciting the aristocrat and Thwaites to break the law. He rejected as "ludicrous" a suggestion that he had "spiked" the men's drinks.

Despite the leniency requested by the jury, Judge Pontius had stern words for the party-loving defendants: "Neither of you were driven by need, poverty or depravation."

The judge said he had taken into account the fact that Hardwicke, of Barons Court, west London, had been cautioned previously for possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine.But he added: "Journalists in general ... should carefully examine their approach to investigations where there is no police participation."

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