Last week we spent a couple of rainy afternoons perched in the public gallery of Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court. A pile of gloomy late Victorian masonry, it was built on the auspicious site of Newgate Prison, the scene of hundreds of public hangings throughout the 19th Century. Old Bailey is now surrounded by brand new upscale office buildings and sits sourly mumbling to itself about the good old days.
We entered through a small door with all the standard courthouse signs – no cameras, no tape recorders, no alcoholic beverages – and after being thoroughly searched, climbed a long winding staircase to the public gallery from which we had a birds-eye view of a trial in progress.
We hadn’t seen such an atmosphere of solemn ritual since we were inducted into the Brownies. The prosecutor and defense attorney sat together on one side of the courtroom, bowing and addressing the judge with breathless adoration. The jury box was on the other side of the courtroom, fitted with computer monitors. Many yards away, on a raised, enclosed platform, sat the defendant. It is said that this arrangement is to emphasize the contest between the accused and the Court.
We were unobtrusively scribbling away in our notebook when we suddenly caught sight of a bewigged person down in the courtroom glaring up at us like a furious sheep and making throat-cutting gestures. A moment later, a hefty guard came up from behind us and threatened to call the police if we didn’t cease and desist taking notes. We feebly protested that this wasn’t among the list of prohibitions posted at the door, but discretion being the better part of valor, we gave in to brute force. We felt right at home. It was just like the Bronx.
(to be continued)