When the trial of a gang of suspected armed robbers started at the High Court last month it made legal history as the first British criminal case to take place without a jury in more than 400 years. Now the courtroom has lost another key feature: one of the defendants.
Peter Blake, 57, is being hunted by police after fleeing the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday afternoon. He is one of four men on trial accused of taking part in a £1.75m armed robbery at Heathrow Airport in February 2004.
Blake, from Notting Hill, West London, and his co-accused are all on bail and are free to leave the court building at any time. His was not a dramatic escape from the dock: rather, he simply did not return to court after yesterday's lunch break. He was on £250,000 surety which will now forfeited.
All ports have been notified and, as part of Blake's bail conditions he has been forced to surrender his passport. The trial will continue in his absence.
Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy, of the Flying Squad, said: "Peter Blake is considered dangerous and we would ask members of the public not to approach him, but if they do see him to call 999 immediately."
Blake, who is the only member of the gang to have allegedly fired his gun during the raid, was last seen at the Royal Courts of Justice, in the Strand, at about 2.15pm yesterday. He is described as a white man, 5ft 7ins tall with blue eyes and grey receding hair. He was last seen wearing dark trousers and a black anorak-style coat.
It is the fourth time the case has come to trial and, because of fears of jury nobbling, it is now being heard by a judge, Mr Justice Treacy, sitting alone.
It is the first time since Magna Carta was sealed – discounting the Diplock Courts for paramilitary suspects during the Troubles in Northern Ireland - that Britain has had a juryless trial. However, only John Twomey, 61, has faced all four trials, which have cost the taxpayer more than £20m. This is the third time Blake has been on trial. Also on trial are Barry Hibberd, 42, and Glen Cameron, 49. During the first trial Twomey suffered a heart attack in Belmarsh prison. His six co-defendants were acquitted. At the second trial the jury were reduced to nine and were unable to reach a decision.
At his third trial the judge halted the hearing nearly halfway through after receiving information from the prosecution, which the judge said pointed to a "serious attempt at jury tampering".
Only one man has ever been jailed for the robbery: an inside man who turned "supergrass" and pleaded guilty.
The fact that the trial is now being held without a jury has been challenged by the defence who applied for the case to be thrown out. It has also been criticised by supporters of the four men.
On the first day of the trial last month protesters gathered outside the High Court with banners bearing messages such as: "No Jury, No Justice" and "Secret evidence = secret injustice".
The juryless nature of the proceedings has meant there was initially some confusion about whether the judge, who would have to decide upon the admissibility of some evidence, should therefore be allowed to hear the case.
Barrister Sam Stein QC summed up the situation on the first day of the trial by saying: "We are breaking history. This is the first time a court has started a juryless trial."
The raid at the Menzies World Cargo Heathrow was, according to Simon Russell Flint for the prosecution, "professionally planned and professionally executed".
The men had thought their haul would be £10m but because one of the gang had misunderstood a document showing the number of bags of money that were to be delivered to the warehouse that evening, they instead made off with £1.75m. During the raid, Mr Flint said, 16 employees at Menzies were rounded up at gunpoint and tied up. One man, David Westwood, tried to escape and as he ran was shot at, allegedly by Mr Blake.
The bullet missed but when Mr Blake caught up with him and a scuffle ensued during which several more shots were allegedly fired, although none hit or injured Mr Westwood. Blake, Twomey, of New Milton, Hampshire, Hibberd, 43, of Shepherd's Bush, west London, and Cameron, 50, of New Milton, Hampshire, all deny a series of charges including robbery and firearms possession.
The trial continues.