Many were unrecognisable as they ran riot, their faces hidden behind masks and hoods. But some of those responsible during the nights of rioting endured uncomfortable scrutiny yesterday as scores of suspects were swept through London's stretched court system.
Scotland Yard said last night that it had arrested 805 people and charged more than 250 over the disturbances in the capital. In an unprecedented move, Highbury Corner magistrates' court in north London stayed open throughout Tuesday night as court officials dealt with the influx and swiftly cleared the way for new cases.
Those who appeared yesterday included a 11-year-old suspect accompanied by his mother; students with bright futures; and adults with children and jobs. Some said they were ashamed – others were defiant as they left court.
Among those in court was Laura Johnson, 19, an undergraduate at the University of Exeter and daughter of a company director. Her family home in Orpington, Kent, has extensive grounds and includes a tennis court. She went to school at St Olave's Grammar and Newstead Wood, which both number among the country's best schools. She was released on bail, with a strict curfew condition.
One of the first to appear was a primary school worker – Alexis Bailey, 31, from Battersea, south London – who admitted burglary with intent to steal after his arrest in the electrical goods store Richer Sounds during the riots in Croydon. Appearing in a police-issue white tracksuit, Bailey, who, the court heard, works full-time in a primary school in Stockwell and lives with his parents, was given bail but must adhere to a curfew while wearing an electronic tag.
His case, along with many others, was committed to Wood Green Crown Court for sentencing. Magistrates are limited to imposing sentences of six months; crown court judges, however, have heavier sentencing powers. Magistrate Melvyn Marks told the court many of the cases had aggravating features, occurring "in the middle of a very violent riot".
An 11-year-old boy was caught by police attempting to steal a rubbish bin worth £50 from Debenhams in Romford, Essex. Wearing a blue Adidas tracksuit, the boy was dwarfed by the burly security guards who flanked him in the dock. He pleaded guilty to attempted theft. His mother confirmed he would leave her house in future only if accompanied by her, his father or grandparents.
The court heard that when police stopped the boy after seeing him "lean in and take the bin from the broken shop window", he told them: "I was just taking it to pass on to somebody else." Like most others, his hearing lasted no more than 15 minutes.
A trainee hairdresser, Jack Onslow, was accused of storming Zee&Co in Hackney with intent to steal. He was found by police hiding under a cabinet in the store at around 2.30am. He too was committed to crown court.
Christopher Heart, a scaffolder from Chingford with two children, admitted theft. Police had arrested the 23-year-old outside JD Sports wearing a brand new pair of Lacoste trainers and a body warmer with the label still attached. He wept throughout the hearing, and was given conditional bail. As he was led from the dock, wiping tears from his eyes with his T-shirt, hesaid: "I apologise for all the inconvenience I have caused at these recent riots."
Most defendants yesterday were barely out of school. David Attoh, 18, was arrested in Hackney, with two Burberry T-shirts. Attoh, who was due to have an interview for an apprenticeship on Tuesday, admitted theft and was fined £150. The magistrate told him: "Don't get in trouble again. You have a bright future."
Open all night
Three of London's magistrates' courts said they would remain open through the night in an unprecedented effort to cope with the stream of suspected rioters.
Courts in Highbury, Westminster and Camberwell all said they would sit round the clock. Court staff, lawyers and magistrates have been drafted in to work constantly, rotating shifts.
At Highbury, one prosecuting lawyer, who asked not to be named, said: "Lawyers are used to working into the night but I've never seen this. These are very freaky times."
At one point yesterday, three custody vans waited outside holding defendants because the court's cells were full.
"Those of us in the court had no tea breaks," said Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecuting Lawyer for London, who worked from 8.30pm on Monday until dawn the next day. "All I had was a bottle of water to get me through. There are a lot of sleepy lawyers in court but they worked extremely hard."