Bullying witnesses is no way to find the truth

When I was in court, I was taken aback by the aggressive cross-examination that I received
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The Independent Online

If "Bromley" is indeed a fantasist, then she is certainly committed to the role she has allotted herself. The child whose "unreliable evidence" derailed the Damilola Taylor trial in April last year is sticking doggedly to her story - that she witnessed the murder of Damilola and correctly identified the four boys responsible.

Last night on Radio 4's It's My Story, she reiterated the claims she made to the police and in court, and told of the appalling turn her life has taken since she achieved notoriety. Her own account, and details added by her interviewer, John Waite, suggest a miserable existence under the witness protection programme, lived in considerable fear.

It's worth noting that she had been offered up to £45,000 for an interview by the tabloids, but chose the BBC and no fee instead. This, after all, is the 14-year-old who was discredited in court when video tapes were produced of her singing "I'm in the Money" and chanting "Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme", at the prospect of a £50,000 newspaper reward if her evidence led to a conviction. If money was ever part of her motivation, it would seem this is no longer the case.

That Bromley, however, feels the need to appear on radio to defend herself is troubling. This girl was not on trial, but she might as well have been. In a real sense, she was the one found guilty by Mr Justice Hooper, guilty of telling a story "embellished with lies", and condemned in the press as a grasping perjurer who was partly responsible for the failure to achieve justice for Damilola Taylor.

For the crime of giving unreliable evidence, she has certainly been punished. She and her mother live in a house far from their former home in Peckham, the 39th they have taken refuge in so far. They are not in touch with their old friends, and Bromley had to sever all ties with her father and brothers when they chose not to go into hiding.

Their days are spent in semi-darkness, watching television in a shuttered home with panic buttons at the ready. Since the trial Bromley has not returned to school, claims to have attempted suicide twice, and drinks cider habitually. "That helps," she says, "but after it I don't feel good all the time. Sometimes I feel proper low from it. I always feel sad."

Bromley claims that her future has been stolen, and predicts that "I'm just going to be another bum in the world. Someone else who's going to be lowlife on social."

The uncharitable among us might point out that this was the way things were shaping up anyway for a 12-year-old considered by her school as "mentally disturbed", and surviving on an estate so rough that, whether she saw it or not, a vulnerable boy was stabbed with a broken bottle and left to bleed to death.

But this is exactly the point. It was perfectly obvious from the start that there was no reliable witness to the crime, for the presence and actions of a reliable witness would almost certainly have saved Damilola's life. This was the reason why, Bromley claims, she initially denied that she had seen the incident, a fact that was seized upon by the defence. She thought she would get into trouble because the boy had died and she could have helped if she had reacted differently.

Were the police wrong then, to pursue a case based on the evidence of this witness who was so patently unreliable from the start? No, they weren't, since it is clear almost by definition that for the abovementioned reasons no more reliable witness was going to come forward. The police, with their sympathetic questioning - rather oversympathetic when one remembers the luxury hotel, the £4,000 phone bill, the purchase of a pet and the promise of a holiday - assured themselves that there were essential truths in Bromley's story. But in court, of course, the questions Bromley faced were far from sympathetic.

Bromley is bitter about her treatment at the hands of Courtney Griffiths QC, who cross-examined her for six stormy days which saw her swearing and shouting at him, sweeping papers off desks and storming out of court twice. He has no regrets, however - perhaps rightly, since he was only doing the job he was handsomely paid to do.

His job was to discredit the witness, not to establish the truth. Anyone who has ever been in a courtroom will recognise that, under our adversarial system, the establishment of the truth comes a poor second to the serious business of winning cases or losing them. In my own recent time on the witness stand, I was taken aback at first by the aggressive cross-examination I was receiving. I quickly got into the swing of things though, and rather enjoyed the experience of playing off the defence lawyer, who I despised for her labyrithine, cynical, defence of a burglar caught red-handed, at her own game.

For Bromley, a deprived, ill-educated, confused, suspicious and aggressive child, though, the confrontation with a polished, highly educated and greatly experienced brief was not an equal one. Under such pressure, this stroppy surly child behaved, as she would, like a stroppy surly child. As a tactic for defence, the approach was the right one. As a way of getting to the truth, it was lamentably counter-productive and wrong.

The adversarial system of justice practiced in our courts is very much a stylised duel, in which the intellectually weak are always at a disadvantage. In a case like this, where a trial hangs on the evidence of a disturbed child, there is virtually no point in hoping for justice under such a system.

That is why Detective Chief Superintendant Tony Crofts, head of the south London homicide division, is so correct in his call for a change in the law to allow vulnerable witness to get special treatment in court. His suggestion is that, in such cases, the adversarial approach should be shunted aside, with the witness called by the judge, rather than the prosecution or defence, and questioned inquisitorially, in a less biased attempt to establish the truth rather than to discredit the witness.

Some people may argue that this is merely an excuse made up by a force who failed spectacularly and messily to get a conviction in a high-profile case. But actually, he is correct in these circumstances, and, since I harbour a wider distrust of the adversarial system than he appears to, in most others as well.

It would have been so very, very useful for a dispassionate examination of Bromley's evidence to have been undertaken in court, for her contradictions and discrepancies to have been gently rather than thunderingly challenged, and for an attempt to be made to build a picture in the round of what may or may not have occurred.

The outcome may well have been no different. The evidence against the accused boys - and only two of the four had got as far as the stand - was slender. But at least there would be a feeling that Bromley had been treated appropriately.

As it is, the girl has clearly been made bitter by her treatment. It is possible that it was her very public humiliation that spurred her to stick so tenaciously to an untrue story, and so very desperately to want to be believed. It is also possible that, as the police believed, there are some truths in what she says. But the fact remains that, after all the time, all the money, all the publicity and all the effort, no one is really any closer to knowing what is the truth and what the lies. For Damilola, and for all of those whose violation is seen only by "unreliable witnesses", we must do better in future.