Police demand right to challenge jury verdicts: Home Secretary to examine papers in case of teenager cleared of murder despite admitting that he struck fatal blow with knife

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The Independent Online
POLICE and MPs are demanding a right of appeal over jury decisions following the acquittal of a teenager accused of stabbing a teacher to death.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday asked to see papers concerning the case of Joseph Elliott, 19, who walked free from the Old Bailey on Tuesday after a jury found him not guilty of murdering Robert Osborne, a 40-year-old music teacher, of Streatham, south London.

Mr Elliott had admitted stabbing Mr Osborne with a Swiss army knife. The teacher, brandishing a hammer, confronted Mr Elliott after he slashed Mr Osborne's brother's car tyres. It was alleged in court that Mr Elliott was under the influence of drugs and drink when the incident took place.

When the not guilty verdict was announced, Mr Elliott punched the air. Mr Osborne's widow Diane said she no longer believed in British justice. The prosecution has no right of appeal against an acquittal by a jury.

Yesterday Mr Howard offered his 'intense sympathy' to Mrs Osborne but said nothing could be done in this case. The Home Office, currently reviewing the criminal justice system to maintain 'public confidence', said it would be looking to see if any lessons could be learnt for the future.

But the Police Federation called for immediate changes in the law that would undermine the jury's central role in the justice system. Alan Eastwood, the federation chairman, said: 'In our evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice we proposed that there should be a right of appeal by the Attorney General in cases where an acquittal appeared to be due to a serious misdirection of the jury by the judge or the verdict was perverse.

'We have never understood why a judge and jury can be held to be wrong when the accused has been convicted but are infallible when the accused has been acquitted.'

The federation said the current system was weighted against the victim and gave a poor message to the public. The Government should put the matter right when it legislated on criminal justice in the next parliamentary session, he said.

David Shaw, a senior Tory backbencher, said that the verdict had to be accepted but agreed the law must be reviewed. Terry Dicks, Conservative MP, said the balance had to be restored in favour of the victim. Geoffrey Dickens, Tory MP, called for the abolition of the jury system.

John Fraser, the shadow solicitor general, questioned the prosecution's judgement over the charges it chose to bring and the extent to which an accused person could use the defence of self-defence.

Mr Elliott was charged with murder and then manslaughter, if that charge failed. Mr Fraser asked why a lesser charge than manslaughter had not been brought.

Tony Blair, Labour home affairs spokesman, shared public concern but was cautious about calls for changes in the law. The case should be looked into closely to see if lessons could be learnt, he said. But he added: 'We should be careful of making law on the basis of one decision before we have investigated the matter properly.'

Caution was also urged by Professor Michael Zander, a member of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which issued its report last week. He advised Mr Howard to 'broaden his shoulders and take this as just part of the everyday to-ing and fro-ing of politics. The commission considered the question of appeals against jury verdicts very seriously. It came out unanimously against'.

It had concluded that the only time acquittals should be open to challenge was when the jury was shown to have been bribed or intimidated. 'We have had the jury system for hundreds of years.

'Sometimes a jury appears to get it wrong. But the traditional role of the jury is to stand for the citizen against the state. That means sometimes bringing in a verdict which appears to be against the evidence.'

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