York Crown Court had never seen anything like it. Some of the 100 or so observers and officials packed into No 3 Courtroom gasped in stunned surprise before spontaneously bursting into uncontrollable applause.
There was an outpouring of emotion in the public gallery. Men were hugging each other. Women shed tears of relief. And, caught in the adults’ euphoria, the few children present jumped for joy.
Journalists who sat opposite on the press benches struggled to put into words the tension and drama that had unfolded from the beginning to the sensational end of the three-week trial.
The judge realised he had made a massive error of judgement. He also discovered the futility of banging his gavel and shouting, “Order! Order!” to restore any semblance of calm.
From the brink of impossibility one man, and one man alone, had conjured a not guilty verdict.
James Pennington could woo jurors like no other advocate of his day. Blessed with a silver tongue, which came stamped with the Britannia hallmark, the six-footer could seemingly hypnotise them into returning whatever verdict he desired.
Pennington’s athletic build and distinguished looks cut a remarkably dashing figure, despite being 47 years of age. Charming but never patronising, women jurors believed him because they wanted to believe in him. Male jurors would instantly sense a man truly in a league of his own. He had an indefinable presence, which meant that whenever he walked into a room he was always noted.
But most of all he had the ability to address a crowd and make everyone feel as though they – alone – were his sole audience. He made them feel special.
However, Pennington was not a barrister.
He was one of a new breed of lawyers allowed to practise alongside barristers in the Crown Court and High Court.
Indeed it was his very status as a ‘Solicitor Advocate’ that contributed to the judge’s error and the trial’s tumultuous conclusion.
Three weeks earlier, nine men sat in the dock accused of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The prosecution had claimed they used Uzi submachine guns to rob a series of banks and building societies in the North Yorkshire area. The jury had been particularly shocked by appalling levels of violence meted out to an elderly security guard who dared to stand up to one of them.
Eight of the men were gangland thugs from Manchester. The ninth was a simpleton from York who subsequently wished he had never accepted an offer to earn an easy £100 for stealing a high performance car that was later used by the gangsters as a getaway vehicle.
Eight top QCs from London represented the Mancunians. The Silk who should have defended the York man had suddenly taken ill.
Officials put out tannoy messages and searched the precincts of the court for any barrister who could take the case. Pennington had been the only available advocate. But the moment the trial judge, and head of the North Eastern circuit, Mr Justice Heller, saw that Pennington was just a Solicitor Advocate he took umbrage and said in open court, “Do we really have to scrape the barrel?”
The 70-year-old judge was a fully paid-up member of the legal establishment’s Old Guard, which decreed that only barristers could, and should, address juries; and solicitors ought to count themselves lucky if they were privileged to be counsel’s lapdogs. Mr Justice Heller genuinely believed that “pinko liberals” had infiltrated the British government when it introduced the new rules to end the Bar’s closed shop.
When Pennington arrived, unaware of what had been said in his absence, embarrassed silence descended as he took his place in amongst the line of eminent Silks on the front row of the well of the court. Although some of the QCs – and many others in the legal establishment – shared the judge’s prejudices none would subsequently dare express them because Pennington gave one of his best acting performances in the guise of consummate advocacy.
As the trial wore on the jury came to the inescapable conclusion that at least some of the men in the dock had been involved in using submachine guns to threaten security guards.
It was clear to all that the question of guilt could be answered by determining which of the nine men was conversant with the use of firearms.
When it came to the defences’ closing speeches, each barrister blamed his colleagues’ clients. It left an impression that the defendants had become so desperate to avoid being found out, they were attacking each other like fighting rats in a barrel.
Pennington had a different approach. His closing speech was simple and short, “Members of the jury. You may think that some of the men in the dock are guilty and some are not. They all deny ever having used firearms, including these weapons…” Pennington walked over to the exhibits table that was in full view of the jury, before continuing, “and perhaps one way of determining this would be to take hold of an Uzi, and…” He gestured to pick up the gun. Although he never actually touched it, all nine men in the dock were left with the distinct impression that he was holding the semi-automatic weapon by his side. Then, in a blinding flash, Pennington turned on his heels to face the dock, raised his hand – as though he were raising the gun – and pointed to the defendants while simultaneously shouting, “FIRE it!”
It came as no surprise to Pennington when the sound of crashing chairs immediately resounded from the back of the courtroom. As he had calculated, the gangsters had momentarily feared they were coming under fire and their natural reflex actions had taken over. They all reached inside their jackets to the place where they would normally secrete their guns. At the same time they pushed their chairs back as they crouched down for cover.
The noise resulted in everyone, including the twelve members of the jury, looking to the back of the courtroom and focussing on the actions of the defendants in the dock.
When the gangsters realised Pennington had not even picked up the gun they felt quite foolish and conspicuously tried to regain their composure.
The jury could also see that the York simpleton had been completely unaffected by Pennington’s ruse.
“Members of the jury…” Pennington got – and held – their attention. With his seductive dark eyes he stared penetratingly at each juror. The six women and six men looked back. Slowly, and leaving his sentence hanging, Pennington turned towards the dock – taking the jurors’ gaze with him. Finally, he faced them and, with a raised eyebrow, feigned a look of incredulity, “… Need I say more?”
He did not. All of the Manchester gangsters were unanimously found guilty.
It was when the jury forewoman announced that Pennington’s client was to be acquitted that the courtroom commotion began.
No one knew whether the judge became apoplectic because of his abhorrence at the gratuitous violence suffered by the security guard or because the advocate who had been ‘scraped from the barrel’ had outclassed and outperformed an array of supposedly eminent QCs from London.
In amongst the uproar the eight Silks took turns to congratulate Pennington on his performance. Mr Justice Heller grudgingly joined the QCs’ praise and made a public and unreserved retraction of his earlier remarks.
The journalists could not decide whether the headline should be the jury’s verdicts or the judge’s grovelling apology.
A jubilant Pennington left court convinced that life was going well and his career was on an upward spiral. But – at that particular moment in time – he had no idea he would end up becoming involved with Seamus Glover.