BROADCHURCH’S LAWYERS COULDN’T HIT THE BROADSIDE OF A CHURCH
Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to put the unpleasantness front and center. This is one of those times. So, here comes an unpleasant:
I want to discuss the British police procedural TV show Broadchurch and there’s no way I can do that without massive spoilers on both seasons of the show. Spoilers along the lines of SPOILER ALERT! not just revealing that Darth Vader was Luke’s father but doing it before the Star Wars came out.
Broadchurch is set in the small, seaside British village of Broadchurch, which explains why the show wasn’t called Bexhill-On-Sea. The first season started with the murder of Danny Latimer, a local eleven-year-old local boy then centered on the investigation by Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sargent Ellie Miller of said murder. (Wait, who said murder? I thought she only wrote it.) Broadchurch was not a pure procedural. It dealt as much with how the murder tore apart the small, close-knit community.
That tearing-apart aspect came fully into play in the final episode of the first season when DI Hardy learned that the murderer was SPOILER ALERT! Ellie’s husband, Joe. The town of Broadchurch in microcosm was torn apart after Ellie watched Joe’s filmed confession and SPOILER ALERT! beat him up in the police station. The town of Broadchurch in macrocosm was torn apart by the murder then torn apart again in the show’s second season, when SPOILER ALERT! Joe didn’t plead guilty and stood trial for Danny’s murder.
That’s where the law came in. So I guess it’s where I come in, too.
I won’t stress over the niggling legal mistakes that aren’t even worthy of a SPOILER ALERT! such as the fact that the trial judge was wearing a barrister’s wig instead of a judge’s wig, even if legal experts in England did. We’ve got wacking great errors to deal with.
Before the trial began, SPOILER ALERT! Joe’s defense lawyers had Danny Latimer’s body exhumed without telling anyone, even the Latimers. And on rather flimsy grounds. (That is, the grounds for the exhumation were flimsy. The ground of the cemetery was fine old English sod.) I realize things are different in the British criminal justice system; what with the wigs and the “M’luds,” and all. So I did some research. I found an article from the British paper The Daily Mail about Broadchurch’s second season. It answered my questions and confirmed my suspicions.
The body of an English murder victim belongs to the coroner. No coroner would have released Danny’s body without consulting the surviving family, unless said family were suspects in the case; which they weren’t. A spokesperson for England’s Ministry of Justice quoted in The Daily Mail said it was “inconceivable” that the body would have been exhumed in the way shown in the show. And I think the word did mean what he thought it meant.
But that was just the start. When Danny’s mother was cross-examined, defense counsel SPOILER ALERT! asked her about her sex life and her husband’s affair. In America such questions wouldn’t be permitted unless they went to the witness’s credibility. The fact that a woman’s husband was having an affair might affect her gullibility but not her credibility. Legal experts interviewed by The Daily Mail said the questions wouldn’t have been allowed in England either, as they had no connection to the case being tried.
During the trial, SPOILER ALERT! all the witnesses were in the courtroom when the other witnesses testified. Dramatic as hell; we got to see Danny’s parents agonized faces every time something went wrong. But inaccurate as a caveman eating brontoburgers. According to The Daily Mail, British courts, like American courts, require a separation of witnesses http://criminal.lawyers.com/criminal-law-basics/excluding-witnesses-from-the-courtroom.html. Witness aren’t permitted in the courtroom until they’ve testified. That way, no witnesses can hear what other witnesses say and change their testimony to conform it with what had been said before.
But the most egregious error was the SPOILER ALERT! motion to suppress Joe Miller’s confession. (The British called it excluding the statement, not suppressing. Silly Brits, can’t even get their own language right.) After DI Hardy testified about how he arrested Joe and obtained Joe’s confession, defense counsel SPOILER ALERT! got Hardy to admit that DS Miller physically assaulted Joe while he was in custody. Then counsel argued that the police had beaten the confession out of Joe, so it should be excluded.
DI Hardy had testified that Joe confessed before DS Miller assaulted him. Moreover, the confession was filmed, so the judge could see that Joe Miller didn’t have any signs of a physical assault at the time he confessed. Despite all this, SPOILER ALERT! the judge agreed she could not discount the possibility that the injuries were sustained before Joe Miller arrived at the police station, suppressed the confession, and ordered the jury to disregard it.
This whole proceeding was the Lex Luthor of dash; balderdash.
First there’s the matter of the suppression motion being heard in open court in front of the jury. Suppression motions are questions of law not evidentiary matter. No American suppression hearing would be held in front of the jury, the way it happened on Broadchurch. No English hearing would either according to the attorney interviewed by The Daily Mail.
More egregious was the timing of the suppression motion; after the trial started. In the United States, defense counsel wouldn’t even have been permitted to make a motion to suppress a confession after trial had started. Motions to suppress evidence must be filed before trial starts. See, if the trial has started and the prosecution loses the motion to suppress, it’s stuck. The trial court won’t grand a prosecution motion for a months-long continuance, while the prosecution takes an interlocutory appeal on the suppression ruling. But the prosecution can’t wait until the trial ends before appealing the suppression ruling. Assuming the prosecution lost the trial – a totally warranted assumption; if the prosecution won the trial, it would bother appealing – Double Jeopardy would prevent it from trying the defendant a second time, should it win the appeal. So defense attorneys are required to file motions to suppress before trial starts. That way, the prosecution can appeal the decision before jeopardy attaches and, should it win the appeal, still be able to try the defendant.
England, apparently, doesn’t have the same requirement. However, the lawyer interviewed by the ubiquitous Daily Mail said that the suppression matter would still have been settled before trial started. Neither the defense nor the prosecution would want to start a trial with this question mark over the case.
Most egregious was the fact that the judge granted the motion to suppress Joe’s confession. Judges don’t like to suppress confessions; especially confessions of confessed child killers. No judge in her right mind would agree with the defense counsel argument that “we cannot discount the possibility that the injuries were sustained before his arrival at the police station,” when the video evidence before her clearly showed that not only did Joe receive his injuries after he arrived at the station, he received them after he confessed.
Sure the judge was wearing a barrister’s wig instead of a judge’s wig. But that only means she wasn’t in her right wig, not that she wasn’t in her right mind. This ruling was shakier than a selfie in an earthquake.
You’ll be glad to know the attorney quoted in The Daily Mail agreed that no judge would have excluded Joe’s confession. Even if you’re not glad, I certainly am. I’d hate to think my grasp of the law was as tenuous as Broadchurch’s.
I had a problem with Broadchurch’s second season on from a legal point of view. I also had problems with it from a story point of view. An underlying subplot of Broadchurch’s first season was that SPOILER ALERT! DI Hardy was trying to restore his career after he failed to bring to justice a different child killer from an earlier case. Broadchurch’s first season was also a story of Hardy’s redemption when he solved the murder of Danny Latimer. However in the final episode of Broadchurch season two, SPOILER ALERT! the jury found Joe Miller not guilty. This demeaned the whole redeemed story of the first season, because, once again, DI Hardy failed to secure the conviction of a child murderer.
Still, Broadchurch’s second season wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It wasn’t, for example, Gracepoint, the American version of Broadchurch. Gracepoint managed to undercut all of the themes in Broadchurch, not just the redemption one, by SPOILER ALERT! having a completely different solution and a different murderer.
Broadchurch’s second season also wasn’t as bad as the second season of True Detective. Broadchurch’s second season only undercut the themes of the first season, True Detective’s second season tarnished the memory of the first season by being lousy.
Oops. Guess I should have put a SPOILER ALERT! there.