No angry men: first trial without jury begins

Case of men charged with £1.75m armed robbery makes legal history

Making history is never easy. And so it proved at the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday where the British legal system entered its newest and one of its most controversial chapters; a criminal trial without a jury.

It is the first time a major criminal trial has been heard without a jury in a British court in more than 400 years. The case in question was that of a £1.75m armed robbery alleged to have been carried out by John Twomey, Peter Blake, Barry Hibberd and Glen Cameron at a warehouse at Heathrow in February 2004.

It is the fourth time the case has come before the court, costing the taxpayer an estimated £24m. Last year the Court of Appeal ruled that it should now be heard by a judge alone because of the danger of jury tampering. The last trial had to be abandoned over those fears.

Dispensing with the jury meant that the formality of selecting and swearing in 12 jurors would not need to happen. And time-consuming legal arguments, deciding what those jurors should and should not hear about the defendants, would also be rendered irrelevant.

But that is not to say things were straightforward. The legal argument centred on the judge, Mr Justice Treacy, who pondered aloud whether, by looking at information which would not be introduced as evidence, the defence teams would then request that he did not try the case. They would not, he was assured.

Amid the discussion over what could and should happen, barrister Sam Stein QC summed up the apparent confusion surrounding the situation by saying: "We are breaking history. This is the first time a court has started a juryless trial."

As the debate continued in Court 35, so did a small protest outside the building. Protesters stood with banners bearing messages such as: "No Jury, No Justice" and "Secret evidence = secret injustice".

Inside the court the judge highlighted one of the advantages of the lack of a jury. He asked members of the press to identify themselves and explained that, should anyone struggle to find a seat, they could sit in the jury box. Finally the defendants were asked to confirm their names. Usually the clerk would read out all 18 charges on the indictment to the jury. Instead she simply asked Mr Justice Treacy: "Has your lordship seen the indictment?" "I have," he replied.

And so Simon Russell Flint QC opened the case for the prosecution. He told the judge that the men in the dock had been involved in a "professionally planned and professionally executed" armed robbery at Menzies World Cargo at Heathrow in February 2004. 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 tried to escape and as he ran was shot at, allegedly by Mr Blake, it is alleged. The bullet missed but when Mr Blake caught up with the staff member a scuffle ensued during which several more shots were allegedly fired, although none hit or injured the staff member. Mr Twomey, 61, of New Milton, Hampshire, Mr Blake, 57, of Notting Hill, west London, Mr Hibberd, 43, of Shepherd's Bush, west London, and Mr Cameron, 50, of New Milton, Hampshire, all deny a series of charges including robbery and firearms possession.

The case continues.

From Magna Carta... A history of trial by jury

1215: Magna Carta signed The notion of trial by jury traces its roots back to Article 39 of the Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215.

July 1641: Abolition of the Court of Star Chamber (Mis-)used by monarchs against political opponents until the end of the Civil War, this was the last place people were regularly tried for serious criminal offences on indictment in the absence of a jury.

October 1973: First case held in a Diplock court R vs Baker for the murder of James Patrick McArtan. Established in 1973 in Northern Ireland to overcome jury intimidation, the Diplock courts tried 300 people a year in the 1980s. The courts were abolished in July 2007.

December 2005: Trial of Abbas Boutrab The first non-republican or loyalist case to appear in a Diplock court. Boutrab was sentenced to six years for downloading information on how to bomb a passenger jet.

2007: Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes into effect Trial without jury where there are fears jury tampering would take place, and if measures to protect jurors are inadequate.

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