Terrorists win if we lose faith in trial by jury

They have been convicted by everybody except a jury. The men on trial for their involvement in an airline bomb plot, four of whom the jury felt unable to convict of murder conspiracy this week, had been condemned as soon as they were arrested two summers ago.

Then, the Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson told us publicly that there had been a plot to bomb airliners that “was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale”. A “security source” told the Daily Mirror: “Make no mistake - if this plot had succeeded it would have been bigger than 9/11 in terms of body count. This is very, very significant.” A “British government source” excitedly told The Guardian of an “intercepted message from Pakistan telling the bombers to ‘go now'” - a message we have never heard of again.

John Reid, the Home Secretary at the time, added that if the bombers had been successful, it would have caused death on an “unprecedented scale”. The police were confident, he added, “that the main players have been accounted for”.

Then the newspapers piled in, warning that “but for the grace of God and a truly remarkable performance by police and the security services, the destruction could have been unimaginable: an act of indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of Britons in the skies above America” (Daily Mail); “The al-Qaeda fanatics planned to board the planes at UK airports then blow them up three at a time as they flew over eight US cities” (Mirror); “Muslims in plot to bomb jets” (Daily Telegraph). “Had the terrorist plan to blow up five American airliners succeeded...”, began a leading article in The Times.

Eventually the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, let it be known that he was afraid that such rash public comments were in danger of prejudicing a fair trial, and everyone shut up. But not before Mr Reid had said in a speech that some people “just don't get it... Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms in the modern world.”

No hyperbole there, then.

Well, I “just don't get it”. I just don't get it that it was OK then for ministers, police officers and the media publicly to label as guilty men who had not been formally charged with anything (there were 24 people arrested at the time, by the way.) And I don't “get it” that it was OK this week for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to indicate immediately after the verdicts - and in terms that might prejudice the retrial they are now seeking - that they considered the defendants guilty of plotting to blow up aircraft, regardless of the verdicts of the jury.

I don't get it that it was OK for Panorama on Tuesday night to continue to refer to “the airlines plot”, despite the jury's failure to reach a verdict on whether aircraft were, in fact, involved.

The jury rightly found three men guilty of conspiracy to murder, which carries a life sentence, but that isn't enough for the authorities - the men must be convicted of a plot actually to blow aircraft out of the sky, because that is what police and politicians told everyone was being planned, and every air passenger's life was greatly disrupted as a result. This is about pride and pique, not justice. Mr Reid told Panorama: “We would have sustained the worst terrorist attack in the UK's history.” He still doesn't know that.

If the evidence were there for certain, the jury would have convicted all the men for all the offences. But that's not straight enough for those who have been widely briefing the newspapers this week about a stroppy, divided jury who may not have been paying attention and were distracted by details such as family sickness, holidays and hospital appointments.

The implication is that they reached the wrong conclusions - yet there seems to be no clear evidence that the defendants definitely intended to blow up multiple aircraft. There was nothing “wrong” in the jury's verdicts. Those involved with the prosecution appear to have been so certain of their case that they forgot that the jury also had to be persuaded beyond all reasonable doubt.

To seek to blame the jury and overturn its judgment about the evidence is to seek to overturn one of the fundamental principles of British justice. Perhaps this is one of the freedoms that we need to “modify”, as Mr Reid said back in that overheated summer; the freedom to be tried by 12 objective fellow citizens, not by the police and media.

And if the jury was stroppy and confused, it only reflected, as a jury is supposed to reflect, the public. Perhaps the jurors included some who mirrored the way that many citizens feel about the War on Terror and the hyperbole used to prosecute it, about the manipulation of information by politicians pursuing a “tough on terror” image, the irritation and confusion about public relations posturing by the police, and anger at the abuse of authority rammed home every time people have to strip off their belts and be photographed in British airports for a flight to Scotland.

The only winners in this are the terrorists. If some very dangerous people were let off the hook this week, so was a very dangerous animal unleashed. The Daily Mail asked yesterday: “Are our standards of proof too high to protect the public from terrorists? There is something wrong with a society that cannot successfully prosecute and punish those it accuses of seeking to destroy it.”

We can successfully prosecute and punish - we just have to have sufficient evidence to persuade a jury of 12 ordinary men and women.

It's called the law. Or perhaps that's another freedom requiring modification in the face of those who oppose our fundamental values. What a terrible legacy of the events of seven years ago today that would be.

Alice Miles