Looters in Court Britain Sends Tough Signal with Fast-Track Justice
The British government has pledged to take a firm stance against those arrested during this week's riots. Courts across the country have been working around the clock to deal with the flood of cases. The hearings provide an insight into Britain's frustrated and violent underclass.
John M. is desperate. The 43-year-old, who is wearing torn jeans, stumbles aimlessly around in the corridors of London's Highbury Corner Magistrates Court, begging for help. M., who is from Liverpool, explains that he got a call on Wednesday morning, telling him that his 19-year-old son David had been arrested in London on Monday evening. The father doesn't know yet what his son, who lives in the London borough of Camden with his older brother, has been charged with. Neither can his son's court-appointed lawyer help him -- he hasn't seen the public prosecutor's documents.
"It could be that David took something when the looting began and the shops were standing open," John M. says. "But any one of us would have done the same." He looks at the SPIEGEL ONLINE reporter with wide eyes, seeking a sign of agreement.
The case of David M. is just one of around 60 that were being processed on Wednesday at the court, a slightly run-down three-story concrete building on London's Holloway Road. The British government has announced it will deal with the over 800 people arrested in London since the start of the riots on Saturday in a quick and tough manner. Fast-track proceedings are intended to send a signal to stop the violence which has now spread across the country.
The judges, who can currently only decide between continued detention and conditional release, are under massive pressure. Since Tuesday evening, they have been hearing cases practically around the clock. But they still can't keep up with the influx of new cases. Vans filled with new suspects are continually arriving from police stations.
A Glimpse of the Underclass
The hearings are attracting huge attention, and the public gallery is full the whole day. Part of the motivation to come and view the hearings is probably the desire to see at first hand the people who have plunged England into a serious crisis and shocked the world. As one television reporter puts it, the people standing before the judge have ruined London's reputation and perhaps even that of the whole country.
That may be over-sensationalizing things. But at the very least the court hearings allow a glimpse of a frustrated and violent social class that has grown over the years and which has given free rein to its anger in the past few days. The ranks of the suspects also include many people who simply took advantage of the anarchy to get their hands on consumer goods they otherwise couldn't afford.
One of the day's most spectacular cases involved a boy wearing a blue Adidas track suit. The youth, who is from Romford in Essex and cannot be identified by name because of the laws protecting minors, seemed unsure of himself as he wandered around in front of the courtroom between the somewhat chaotic hearings. Only 11 years old, he is the youngest of the hundreds of suspects arrested.
When he appeared before the judge, he admitted to having looted a Debenhams department store in Romford on Monday along with a gang of 20 other young people. His booty was a trash can worth £50 (57 or $81). After his gang had smashed the shop's windows, he leaned in and grabbed the trash can, before being arrested. He later told police officers he had just grabbed hold of the bin and had wanted to give it to someone else later.
The boy's mother made her feelings known during the court's breaks. "We are not criminals," she screamed in front of the court-appointed attorney. "We want to take our son home right now." The court did not decide on the boy's punishment on Wednesday. He will now be remanded in a special facility for juvenile offenders in connection to the current case and a separate offense that happened in the week before the riots.
Telling Police Records
But the boy in the track suit was not the only minor appearing before the court on Wednesday. The incomplete court list for the day included seven other minors. Most of the other suspects are aged between 18 and 25. The charges were always the same: The youths were either caught in the act inside stores that had been broken into, or were picked up on the street as they made off with their loot.
Among the young men were the two friends Richard P., 19, and Jason W., 22. They sat in the defendants' glass box in Room 3 of the court wearing the white tracksuits of the detention center where they had been held since Monday night. The young men kept looking at the public gallery, trying to find their family or friends. The men are charged with having taken an entire shopping cart with power tools worth £1,500 from a store. The two men told police during questioning that they had found the shopping cart on the street and had simply wanted to hand it in to the police. Neither of the men have a profession or vocational training. According to their lawyers, they make a living as day laborers on construction sites.
One thing is constant during almost every court hearing. When the public defenders, who are clearly overwhelmed by the amount of cases, request that the suspect be released on probation, the prosecutor presents the suspect's police record. In almost all the cases it is telling. Richard P.'s file, for example, contains entries relating to theft and drug offences.
The judge, who decides to refer almost all the cases to a higher court because of the seriousness of the charges, nevertheless grants the two young men conditional release. They are to wear electronic ankle bracelets to ensure that they do not leave their homes between early evening and dawn and that they report regularly to their local police station.
'You Don't Give Us a Chance'
Wednesday's events in the court reveal the divide in British society. When Terry, 32, appeared before the court in the late afternoon, the hearing didn't take long. According to the charges, the young man was arrested on Tuesday night in a broken-into phone shop in Camden as he was looking around for valuable loot. The judge turned down a request for a conditional release because of the suspect's record of repeatedly violating probation. On top of that, the police had also found cocaine and crack on the suspect.
When Terry was finally led off back to the basement, his red-haired sister, who was sitting in the public gallery, lost it. "You whore," she yelled at the female judge. "You don't give us a chance. The only thing you can think of is to lock us up."