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TV3 next in the dock…?

By Steven | October 7, 2008

It’s an innocuous-sounding phrase, but it should be emblazoned on the memory of every court reporter: “identity is at issue”.

That means that the defence will be arguing that “it wasn’t me, it was someone else”. (This can be contrasted with a defence such as, “it was me, but it wasn’t a crime, or it was self-defence” etc).

That means the Crown will have to prove that it was the defendant. That means they’re likely to be relying on witnesses to identify the defendant. And that usually happens by the rather unsatisfactory method of an in-court identification.

“Do you see the man you saw knifing your neighbour in the courtroom today?”

“Yes – that’s him there, the man sitting in the dock between those two burly police officers”.

(Incidentally, the courts have often warned police that this isn’t the best identification evidence and they ought to be holding identity parades much more often. For a variety of reasons, the police hardly ever do. They’ll much more often show the witness some photographs, or have the witness do a walk-by to identify the defendant, neither of which is as good as an identity parade.)

Anyway, that puts a premium on the in-court witness identification, and the court needs to be sure that, weak as it is, it is as untainted as possible by outside influence. It would be outrageous, for instance, if a police officer whispered to a key identification witness just before the witness was about to give evidence: “don’t forget, the guilty guy is a tall Indian fellow with a scar on his forehead”.

That’s why the judge warned the media not to publish any images of Liam James Reid. And why he was so furious when TV3 did so.

Defence counsel might go to town on this. “How can this identification hold any water?” they might argue. “The witness admits she saw the TV3 report. How do we know she’s remembering what happened at the time of the offence – and not merely identifying the defendant from what she saw on TV?” In such cases, there may even be argument that the trial should be abandoned.

One problem, as I’ve said before, is that many journalists just don’t get contempt of court. They don’t understand what it’s for, or what it covers. They just have some dim memory of a class in journalism school when they were told that they mustn’t prejudice the administration of justice. Whatever that might mean. Something about previous convictions, maybe?

That applies especially to journalists who are drafted in to cover a case without much previous courtroom reporting experience, and journalists who skip in and out of court, just report on the bits they see,and don’t check with courtroom staff to see what restrictions might have been imposed. (That said, I don’t know who was responsible for the TV3 coverage).

UPDATE: I’ve just seen the story online. Reid’s face (I assume it’s him) is masked. I assume it wasn’t last night. But even without pixelation, if this is all that was screened, it seems a pretty distant and fleeting shot.

Topics: Contempt of Court | No Comments »


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