Martin Short: Was this juryless case a dummy run for terror trials?

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On the night of Friday 6 February 2004 currency worth £1.75m was stolen from the Menzies warehouse on the southern perimeter of Heathrow Airport, close to Terminal 5. CCTV recorded images of six masked thieves striding into the premises, corralling the staff, opening a vault and seizing sacks of currency. One brave employee made a run for it. He was pursued by a robber who fired at him. He was recaptured, beaten and held with his work colleagues until minutes later when the gang departed with their loot.

It was a nasty, professional crime but juries at crown courts all over England and Wales often handle similar trials with barely a problem. So why was it, remarkably, that this run-of-the-mill robbery became the first of its kind in the UK to be heard without a jury? The 2003 Criminal Justice Act breached this historic right (yes, its roots do go back to Magna Carta) by allowing trial by judge alone in certain circumstances, but for five years that option had not been called upon.

The ostensible reason for going for a juryless trial was an alleged attempt to tamper with the jury in a previous trial of the four men convicted on Wednesday. We don't know what the evidence for this is, because only the judge in that trial and a few others have seen it. The Court of Appeal confirmed it could not be revealed because of safety and security concerns. The Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, stated that "disclosure of the evidence might imperil life or health" or reveal police operational methods that "would be of considerable interest to the criminal world" and thereby damage the public interest.

But more menacing villains than these have had a jury trial. This case leaves a bad taste. Did powers higher than the judiciary decide that mere villains be the guinea pigs for this legislation, in the hope that, one day, terrorist trials might be conducted in the same way? With no precedent, the trial of Islamists by judge alone, would provoke a civil liberties outcry.

Cost also weighed heavily on their lordships. The presiding judge at the Old Bailey, Sir David Calvert-Smith, suggested a protection package that would have cost £1.5m and taken 32 police officers from other duties for at least six months. However, as three previous Menzies trials had already cost some £25m, it could have been considered an acceptable price for maintaining the right to trial by jury.

I sat through the trial, and Judge Treacy presided with fairness, firmness and, mostly, calm authority. However, defence lawyers are ready to take the decision to deprive their clients of a trial by jury to Europe on the grounds that it breaches the European Convention of Human Rights.

My suspicion is that a jury would not have convicted all four defendants. Three had plausible if not watertight alibis. Some jurors might have felt unconvinced of guilt "beyond reasonable doubt". "If they have evidence we tampered with the jury, they should put us on trial for that crime too," John Twomey, one of the men convicted, told me while on bail. "On the last trial, we knew enough jurors were on our side from their visible reactions to police evidence and the tone of the notes they were passing to the judge. If anyone had a need to tamper with the jury, it wasn't us."

More such trials are in the pipeline. They will be far shorter, cheaper and more likely to end in convictions. Trial by jury is expiring, not with a bang, but with what may be roars of applause in the Ministry of Justice.

Martin Short is making a documentary film and writing a book about the Menzies robbery