📚 Finished reading Unlawful Killings by Her Honour Wendy Joseph KC.

Former Crown Court judge Wendy Joseph takes us through 5 fictional-but-based-on-reality trials of the type she presided over. The common theme is their relationship to a charge of murder.

The reader gets the intrigue associated with courtroom drama in general, alongside some more analytical legal tutoring as to how the court system works in practice, the factors that affect how cases are decided, what legislation applies and when. What does “not guilty” mean? When is being sure required, vs on the balance of probabilities?

There’s the case of the young man, a victim of knife crime, stabbed to death whilst on a lunch break. We see a mother who a witness believes was trying to suffocate her baby. Next up is another young man, who killed his friend in a car accident. Then the story of the parents whose child was found dead after a explosive family row. A solider appears to have killed his wife rather than let her leave him. And finally a wife who shot her allegedly career-criminal husband.

In each case we see that nothing is as simple as it sounds; very little is black or white. Often the people that kill are not inexplicably evil psychopaths who delight in pain, but people who have found themselves in extremely difficult situations, some of which may be unimaginable to a lot of us if we’re lucky.

Complications, both moral and legal ensue; mental illness, cultures of honour, infanticide, levels of diminished responsibility and gang life amongst others. We see witnesses who won’t testify, experts who disagree with each other, and cases resting on the words of vulnerable young children. Occasionally there are tensions between the agreed procedures of law, the incentives for lawyers and defendants, and what an external observer might consider as just. Nonetheless, the defendants are all alleged to have caused some of the greatest harms it is within our power to cause. At the end of the day it’s for a random selection of us, the jury of their peers, to determine their guilt, and the judge to weigh in on the consequences.

In her telling of the stories we’re introduced to the main characters present in each such trial: judge, defendant, solicitors, barristers, witnesses, clerks, ushers and the all-important jury. Appendices cover some of the relevant legislation and its interpretation. These days it seems judges may be quite constrained as to what they can do. Joseph appears to see her primary role as managing the proceedings of the trial, ensuring the rules are adhered to by all concerned, herself included.

One of her responsibilities is providing a “path to verdict”, translating the complexities of centuries of legal legislation to a set of decisions followable by a largely untrained jury as they make their determination, several of which are reproduced in this book.

The last chapter focuses on what Judge Joseph seems to see as a key failure of the system. Unlike the author of the previous book I read she’s no prison abolitionist. But I understand that she would like to see far fewer cases brought to court, being on the same side as Mariame Kaba in terms of seeing it as very often a failure of society that something harmful enough to warrant a crown court case happened in the first place.

Wrongdoers don’t fall from the skies…they are formed not just by their capacities but by their experiences…particularly difficult experiences in childhood and adolescence. In some cases, if we are honest, we must accept we have allowed them to become what they are.

If we create societies that alienate vast swathes of people, refuse to provide care to people - potential victims or perpetrators - at risk from mental illness, enable black market trades rife with violence whilst leaving large sections of the population destitute, vulnerable and unsatisfied, then we can’t be surprised when sometimes bad things occur.

I think the author believes that we’ve done a reasonable job of identifying what things should be classified as crime. But that we’ve not done nearly enough in terms of preventing those things from occurring. More and more people are locked up in prison, their lives sometimes almost as ruined by the experience as those that they victimised. And yet, crime continues.

A key flaw she identifies in relying on the criminal justice system to manage crime is that, however progressive we make opportunities for restitution and rehabilitation, it doesn’t kick in until after the harm has been done, after the crime has been committed.

Blaming crime on an individual being greedy, dishonest or angry may be satisfying. But many of us are also greedy, dishonest and angry but do not commit crime. She asks us to consider why this is.

Why when people are confronted with a situation wherein they could commit a crime do some choose to do so and others do not? How have we engineered a situation whereby someone feels that their best option for living the life they want is to knowingly harm another?

Maybe, instead of clapping ourselves of the back for the excellence of our criminal justice system, we should accept that the commission of any crime is a mark that somewhere, somehow we have failed.