Monday, May 28, 2018

Infinite Sky mock murder trial at UWE review...

Last week, the characters from Infinite Sky were brought to life to be judged in a mock murder trial based on events from the novel. The aim was to teach advocacy to students training for the Bar at UWE, and if they got a third of the education that I did from the process, then it would have been an extremely worthwhile exercise.

Preparations for UWE mock murder trial.
The courtroom was silent as the primary jury was sworn in (there were four juries, so that more students could be involved). Each member of the jury was introduced, and swore on a bible as the defendant, standing, was given the chance to say if he knew any of them. The judge, HHJ Johnson, of Isleworth Crown, was warm and resolute as he reminded jurors they were under oath, that they mustn't talk about the case at home, nor on social media, that there could be serious consequences if they did, that they might be discharged, and a retrial required. I tweeted guiltily, as the prosecution and defence teams sat silent, save for occasional shuffles of papers, and tension grew.

The prosecution team.

The first prosecuting barrister stood to tell the story of what happened on the night in question, of the tension between the Dancys and the Delanys, and how it mounted over a number of weeks, culminating with one teenage boy lying, mortally wounded, on Memorial Road, another, injured and on the run. How traumatic it would be for the mothers of both boys, I thought as I imagined them watching from the public galleries, and for the young witnesses, who must now speak of what happened, and have their testimony scrutinised in this cold and intimidating environment.

The murder weapon! 

Thomas Dancy, played by Paul Dodgson, was called as the first witness, and I was stunned when he entered the room; with grey curly hair falling over his forehead and piercing blue eyes, it seemed that a person I'd invented had become real. He wore a not-entirely-formal jacket over a soft-collared shirt, and his hands gripped the stand as he spoke, rocking back and forth occasionally, wholly uncomfortable. His head tilted and he covered his mouth as he recounted what happened, the incidents leading to the death. "They're very intimidating people," he said, of the Irish Travellers that had moved, overnight, into his paddock at Silverweed Farm.

Thomas Dancy takes the stand.
The actor portrayed Thomas in a way that felt uncanny: gruff, and simmering with a barely contained rage at the legal system which he felt had long ago failed him, an anger that failed to entirely cover a sensitive disposition. He talked about wanting to protect his children, and hoping that his wife would return to him, as tersely as he could, and my heart crumbled to dust. Tears prickled my eyes, and I felt the sadness of this story, forgot I'd made it up.

Punky swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Next, played brilliantly by Noah Marullo, was Punky, who Iris saw as an instigator of violence, but who saw himself as a heroic and committed defender of the underdog. He explained how he had taken Sam under his wing after his mum, Anna Dancy, left, and how he related to Sam, because of losing his own mother when he was a little boy.

The next witness, Dean, played by Nathan Scott, seemed unhinged in precisely the way I'd imagined him in the book, drawing, as I was, from my teen experience of troubled young men without father figures, already in thrall to their addictions. Dean backed up Punky's version of events and shuffled uncomfortably at the stand. The defence was delighted to see he was much taller than the accused and made his assertion, that the defendant had headbutted him, seem absurd as a result. Halfway through proceedings, things were looking hopeful for the defendant.

Leanne Sharpe.

Leanne, played by Sashni Chelvam, was another revelation, seeming to have matured in the years since the incident. The defence managed to get her to agree that her behaviour had been hateful, and I began to understand the way that advocacy works, grew captivated by the process with which the prosecution and defence battle to take control of the story.

The defendant. 
Finally, it was time for the accused, who had anxiously watched the prosecution's case, to give his side of the story. Played by Fraser Meakin, the defendant looked humble and earnest, and spoke quietly and matter of factly. Occasionally, he laughed out of frustration during his cross-examination, and I felt nervous about how the jury might perceive him, how the prosecution might use the outburst against him, hyper-aware, by now, of the way the story could be reshaped by the barrister's clever direction.

Iris Dancy.
Finally, Iris, played by Elena Spaven, took the stand. Entering the court she looked nervous, graceful and sweet. She had grown into a young woman in the years since the incident, and though when I wrote her she wanted only to tell the truth, watching as the prosecution took her through the events of that fateful night, I found myself doubting her testimony. The highly skilled young barrister-in-training showed the holes in her statement, "You were able to look in front of you, and behind you, at the same time?" and made it seem likely that, not only had Iris colluded with the defendant, but that she had given his version of events.

Iris Dancy is cross-examined.
In the last moments of the murder trial, the witness most likely to save the defendant, seemed to have made his case weaker, and it looked unpromising for the accused, who sat in the dock with his head in his hands. The trial had become a living thing, orchestrated and shaped by the different souls taking part in it, and it was compelling to watch. Most fascinating, was the way each actor believed themselves innocent, to be acting in a justified manner, given the circumstances, and I often found myself questioning whether the defendant was truly acting in self-defence, in spite of the fact that, at the time of creation, I strongly believed he was.

HHJ Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Law at UWE, James Lloyd, Defence and Prosecution teams and ginger me.

After all the witnesses had been cross-examined and re-examined, the closing speeches were made, and the juries went out to deliberate. Returning after an hour or so, they found the defendant not guilty of murder, and he was released. Finally, the students broke roles, and there was much laughter as the actors and students mingled. Promotional photos were taken, and the defendant admitted he was relieved to be able to smile, if only for a moment.

Me and Fraser (the happily acquitted defendant).

It was an incredibly moving and inspiring day, and I am eternally grateful to Liz Cunningham, James Lloyd, all the UWE students involved, as well as the actors, and Glenn Duckworth, who filmed proceedings, as well as real-life judge, Robin, for giving their time and energy to make this fantastic event happen. For me, it was a dream made real, to see my characters come to life - and I shan't forget it. The experience so affected and intrigued me that I've begun working on a novel, inspired by the experience.

For those of you who have read the book, are you surprised at the verdict? And do the characters look the way you imagined them in your heads?

1 comment: