Newsreal: Britons, heal thyselves

British criticisms of the American justice system in the Louise Woodward case are hypocritical, and they ignore the abuses of Britain's own legal practices.

By Karlin Lillington
November 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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LONDON -- in addition to lighting candles, donating money and pledging undying support for the young nanny from Cheshire, Britons these past few days have been fuming at all things American. Fanned by the British media -- not just the tabloids, but the respectable broadsheets as well -- they have come to believe that Louise Woodward is the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. A gross miscarriage that could only happen in America, never in Britain. Not only is she innocent, the thinking here goes, but she has been betrayed by an inferior justice system produced, it is none too subtly suggested, by an inferior country.

Take the normally level-headedly liberal Guardian. "Defense scorns guilty verdict," screamed its headline last Saturday, the day after Woodward had been sentenced to life in prison for the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. The story was concerned less about the verdict and the sentence than with the options remaining for the defense and the competence of the jury. "Although [defense attorney Barry Scheck] did not actually confirm he thought the jury too stupid to understand the evidence ..." began one sentence, in what might legally be termed "leading the reader."


The Independent, another respectable liberal broadsheet, dropped the veneer of objectivity altogether. The victim's statement, delivered by the parents of the dead infant, was described as "probably, to a British audience at least, cloyingly sentimental." It went on, in phrasing more suited to a Victorian potboiler: The Eappens "spoke sentimentally about their loss, citing even Winnie the Pooh. But they said nothing about mercy for Louise, whose life as a free woman is vanishing." The melodrama built to a climax with Woodward's final statement, "before emotion choked off all further words and she slumped back to her chair."

After five pages of coverage highlighting Woodward's British courage and stoicism as opposed to American ineptitude and shallow sentimentality, the Independent's "leader," or editorial, argued that "it is neither British arrogance nor anti-American to say that there are aspects of the Massachusetts system which are inferior to the criminal justice system in the UK ..." A legal expert on the BBC's acclaimed current events program "Newsnight" expressed more bluntly what the entire country felt: Such things would never happen in a British court.

What "things"? Chiefly, the Hobson's "loose-or-noose" choice of verdicts available to the jury, televised trials, the American media's unrestrained coverage of the proceedings and mandatory sentencing. British critics also felt the trial was dominated by lawyers and judges who cared more about personal politics and careers than the case at hand.


The British may have a point about the "loose or noose" factor, which prevented the jury from considering a manslaughter verdict (even though that was the choice of Woodward and her defense team): In the U.K., juries can lessen the charges if they choose. But televised trials? Nobody complained when Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV picked up the Court TV live feed and broadcast it to the British public. As for criticisms of the permissiveness of American press coverage (a "media free-for-all," sneered the Guardian), the British newspapers seem to have forgotten that they have been pressing the government for legislation similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (the British government's control of "sensitive" information is more akin to that of a former Warsaw Pact country) and for a lessening of Britain's severe libel laws, which have long hampered investigative and crime reporting. And many Britons have been screaming for mandatory sentences in the wake of appalling crimes such as the murder of Liverpool toddler Jamie Bolger by two young boys.

Of course, many of the issues raised are the emotional, in-the-moment kind. As a Sky commentator pointed out, were the parents British and the nanny American, a rather different set of concerns would doubtless have been expressed. Still, there is this lingering belief that the British system is less prone to such apparent outrages than the American, that quite simply, "It couldn't happen here."

Forgotten in this torrent of smug anti-Americanism are such recent cases as the Winchester Three, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, Annie Maguire, Judith Ward and the Bridgewater Four. Before their convictions were finally quashed, 19 innocent people, mostly accused of terrorism, spent years upon years in British prisons, convicted by a system that, it is now widely agreed, conspired to accept illegally obtained confessions and blighted evidence. And, by the way, the British justice system, unlike the American, does not guarantee the right to appeal a conviction.


In their rush to judgment about affairs across the Atlantic, the British have forgotten what can -- and does -- happen in their own backyard.

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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