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Some Thoughts On The John Terry Trial

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John Terry's trial is over. Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle* has weighed up the evidence and declared the Chelsea defender not guilty of racism using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress and the offence was racially aggravated in accordance with section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and section 31(1)(c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998."

*May or may not be related to Lort Voldemort.

The fact that so many people spent their time voicing their opinions on the case without much in the way of understanding what was actually going on is hardly surprising, although it is disappointing. With a politically charged (for football) trial, most took sides in advance and stuck to their guns throughout. Now some Chelsea fans are cheering the acquittal, claiming it completely absolves the captain, while a significant portion of the rest of the footballing world complains about the injustice of it all.

Both sides are being more than a little silly, although Chelsea fans are right to celebrate the fact that Terry hasn't been convicted. The notion that merely repeating the words in question* is a criminal offence is absurd -- if so the Guardian and the other major outlets reporting on the trial would be in serious trouble -- and that's not what the trial was about. The's no doubt that Terry used what would normally be considered racially charged language. Instead, the question became one of intent.

*I'm erring on the side of avoiding them entirely; everyone reading knows what was said.

According to Chris Newman, a professor of law at Sunderland University and a specialist in public order offences, there are three tests that prosecution must prove in order to find a guilty verdict here:

  1. The words spoken must be threatening, abusive or insulting as well as racially aggravated.
  2. Said words must be spoken in sight of person likely to be distressed.
  3. The defendant must be aware that said words were likely to be insulting.

Terry's case appeared to rest on the claim that he was denying an accusation of racist abuse (by reporting the words again) rather than using them as an insult. Apparently, nobody heard what he said except for Terry himself, and, thanks to obstructions, the lip-reading evidence merely suggests that the words in question were indeed spoken, something that he admitted anyway. Even if the lip-readers had a full and clear view, it would have been nigh-on impossible to definitively perceive Terry's actual meaning, making the evidence, however compelling it might seem to the viewer, not particularly useful to the court.

That Mr. Riddle ignored the defence's request to dismiss the charges implies that he believes that the prosecution's testimony and evidence are strong enough that a case could be made. Ultimately, however, they failed to actually make said case, and it's pretty obvious why -- there wasn't any real evidence beyond the lip reading that could demonstrate intent or conclusively disprove Terry's version of events. Given that, to my admittedly layman mind, there was only one possible verdict and that's not guilty.

It's impossible to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt what happened out there unless you're John Terry. My personal opinion, tied up in previous biases, counts for absolutely nothing given the complete absence of evidence one way or another. This is true for everyone reporting or commenting on the case, including Mr. Riddle, and that's why he came up with the not guilty verdict. The question of whether or not Terry is a racist was rightly described as irrelevant to this trial:

It may be worth mentioning here that the issue for this court to decide is not whether Mr Terry is a racist, in the broadest sense of the word. I have received a substantial volume of unchallenged evidence from witnesses, both in person and in writing, to confirm that he is not. I understand why Mr Terry wants to make this point. His reputation is at stake. Although I am grateful to all those witnesses who have taken the trouble to provide information on this point, it does not help me in reaching a verdict.

At this point, however, it might be instructive to speculate on what comes next. The FA is now able to resume its own investigation into the case (if you'll permit me to inject a dash of personal opinion, based on the complete lack of evidence presented this should have remained a matter for the FA alone -- the decision to take Terry to trial could, to the cynic, rest solely on his status as a professional footballer, and in more 'normal' cases would probably have been decided via workplace tribunal alone), and it's a slightly different kettle of fish than the court system. The burden of proof on the prosecuting party is significantly lower, and the charge is likely to be different.

That could be trouble for Terry, and I'm left with the suspicion that his legal team was attempting damage control on his reputation ahead of a possible FA charge. Any punishment there will be handed out based on the balance of probability, which means it will be much easier to find Terry of, say, bringing the game into disrepute than it would be for the court to find him guilty of a criminal public order offence. By shoring up his reputation now, Terry's position is strengthened for later.

Regardless of what is to come, however, it seems clear to my admittedly uneducated mind, that Mr. Riddle's decision was the correct one given the evidence, testimonies and procedure for dealing with a case such as this. This does not mean that Terry was definitely innocent, only that he was not definitely guilty. Courts operate in a universe close enough to black and white as makes no difference, but this issue is deeply confused and there was never enough evidence* to convict.

*'I don't like John Terry' turns out not to be evidence.

Mr. Riddle's judgement, if you haven't read it yet, is excellent. It analyses every single salient point in detail, weighing up evidence for and against Terry in what seems to me to be an incredibly balanced way. But nowhere is it better than in the closing statement, where he imparts this gem of wisdom:

What may at first sight have seemed clear to the non-expert, is less clear now.

We don't know what happened. If you think you know, you're lying to yourself. My opinion on John Terry's character makes no difference, and neither does yours. More importantly, our opinions carry absolutely no weight. Terry could have been defending himself on the pitch, or he could have been racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. I don't see any way that a reasonable person could be convinced one way or another, although believing one side versus the other is obviously entirely rational.

Ultimately, what this verdict shows it that this trial was relatively pointless. Although the judgement was 'not guilty', Mr. Riddle's judgement hasn't done much to quash the belief that Terry did as he was accused. A guilty verdict would have been hugely damaging, but was never on the cards thanks to a lack of evidence. Instead, we were treated to a dog and pony show where a Chelsea player has to undergo a fresh assault on his reputation. I still don't know whether that assault was warranted (and neither do you), but I do know that it didn't need to happen.

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