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article imageOp-Ed: Two trials two worlds apart

By Alexander Baron     May 25, 2011 in Crime
An article contrasting two ongoing murder trials: that of Casey Anthony for the murder of her daughter; and of Levi Bellfield for the murder of Amanda (Milly) Dowler.
It has often been said that America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language, but Britons and Americans share much more than a language in common; American law is based in large part on English law, although having developed its own case law as well as becoming a republic instead of a constitutional monarchy, American law can sometimes be radically different from its parent. This is well illustrated by two murder trials that are currently being played out on the world stage.
At the Central Criminal Court, London’s Old Bailey, a man who has already been convicted of two murders is being tried for a third. If he is convicted, Levi Bellfield will be given a mandatory life sentence; having already been told he will never he freed, this might seem academic, but there is a public interest in trying this case. Schoolgirl Amanda Jane Dowler disappeared in March 2002, and was the subject first of a missing person inquiry and then, after her remains were discovered, of a murder investigation.
Nearly four and a half thousand miles away in Orlando, Florida, a young mother is also on trial. Casey Anthony stands accused of murdering her young daughter, but unlike Levi Bellfield, if convicted she could be sentenced to death. In Britain, the death penalty was abolished in 1964 – in practice if not in theory. Casey Anthony was also indicted by a grand jury. In Britain, grand juries were abolished in 1948; Old Style Committals were abolished in the 1990s, purely to save costs. Now, prosecutions are brought by the Crown Prosecution Service if two broad criteria are fulfilled. The prosecution must have a realistic prospect of conviction, and it must be in the public interest. The first condition tends not to be met if the accused is a police officer, however compelling the evidence may appear to the layman.
Because Levi Bellfield was already in prison, he was not charged in the normal manner; instead, a summons was obtained from a magistrates’ court, and this was served on him in Wakefield Prison. It alleged that he attempted to kidnap Rachel Cowles on March 20, 2002, and that he kidnapped and murdered Amanda Dowler the following day.
Levi Bellfield’s trial has attracted international attention – one of his victims was French; another was Irish – but the events in Orlando have been called the trial of the decade; it has even been compared with the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson.
Although the Casey Anthony trial is exceptional, with both massive media coverage and people queuing for tickets from 4am, such pre-trial coverage here would have been unimaginable. There has for example been considerable speculation about Anthony’s defence, as there might well have been. It remains to be seen if any other mother in history has reported a two year old child missing thirty-one days after the event.
Nevertheless, that speculation went too far with the suggestion that Anthony might throw her parents under the bus. Leaving that aside, that is exactly what she appears to have done, when in his opening speech her lawyer claimed Caylee Anthony had not been murdered, but that she had died in an accident in the family swimming pool, and that Casey had not reported her missing because she had learned to lie from a young age, and that she had so learned because her father had sexually abused her, that he even subjected her to oral sex.
George Anthony was in the courtroom when this allegation was made. In Britain, he would have been a fully bound witness, and as such would have been expected to wait outside until he was called. A witness may wait hours, or even days, especially if there is legal argument about the admissibility of evidence. A witness who is part-way through testifying (giving evidence in the UK) may not discuss his evidence with anyone, including his wife or her husband.
The list of witnesses is also treated differently. When I attended the Central Criminal Court on the eighth day of the Bellfield trial, I was told by a press officer that the list ran to around a hundred witnesses. Generally the names will not be made public in Britain, although the names of many witnesses and potential witnesses will not be a secret. The immediate friends and family of victims and defendants; police offficers, especially senior investigating officers; the pathologist who performs an autopsy (or post-mortem in the UK); technical and forensic witnesses; the last people to see the victim alive; the actual victim(s) in assault, burglary and most cases; people who witnessed the fight; workmates; and so on.
In England, juries are made up of twelve persons drawn from the electoral register. The names of the jurors are not known to the accused, nor should they be known to anyone else involved in the trial, including the judge. Jurors may not discuss the case after the end of the trial, although in recent years, most notably the case of Barry George, there was such disquiet over the verdict that a juror went public, and George was cleared after a retrial.
About the only thing in common these two murder trials have is the not guilty pleas of the accused. Whether or not she is believed, Anthony has now formally admitted (through her lawyer) to failing to notify the authorities of the death of her daughter, Caylee. Bellfield has denied any involvement at all in the disappearance of Amanda Dowler, and his defence counsel has suggested that it is possible no crime was committed. As with Caylee Anthony, by the time the body was found, it was impossible for the cause of death to be determined.
In Britain, jury selection is usually over in a matter of minutes, although in Bellfield’s case, it will have taken somewhat longer, due primarily to the estimated length of the trial – eight weeks. Although this is a murder trial, there appears to be no particularly harrowing evidence due likewise to delay in finding the body. Jury selection in the Casey Anthony trial was extremely difficult, because most prospective jurors believed her to be guilty, and these had to be screened out.
Scotland has a unique judicial system; juries are made up of fifteen persons – so there are no hung juries – and there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. Not proven means we know you’re guilty but have a lingering doubt.
The Casey Anthony trial is being covered by a number of DigitalJournal writers including Carol Forsloff. There are also cameras in the courtroom, so that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. This has happened only very occasionally in British courtrooms, and is likely to continue to be the exception rather than the rule.
Today, in Court 8 at the Old Bailey, Emma Mills testified against Bellfield, giving evidence from behind a screen. In the United States, the use of a screen is considered prejudicial, as indeed it is. There are times when its use may be justified, in rape cases where a victim or alleged victim may not wish to face the accused, and in cases of alleged child abuse. Miss Mills testified that she met Bellfield when she was eighteen years old. He was ten years older than her, and they had two children together. Four years later, after the birth of her second child, she moved briefly to a women’s refuge, and then to Colingwood Place with their children but without him. Her mother paid the deposit on the apartment, and she renewed her relationship with Bellfield. On March 19, they were staying at the house of a friend – house-sitting – where she stayed until March 22, the day after Amanda Dowler disappeared. She remembered March 21 especially because she was unable to contact Bellfield that day; normally he kept his mobile phone on all the time, but on March 21 it was switched off. The trial continues.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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