Murder Trial For Beginners

An Interpreter’s Story

Pure evil is rare. So, when it brushes against us, it is chilling. 

I spent the last four weeks sitting next to a convicted murderer who had brutally killed two people in the past and was now on trial for a senseless killing of a 63-year-old man. 

Why would I do that? I am a court interpreter.  The murderer was a foreign national with broken English, and was entitled to an interpreter. 

I used to see murder trials as a real scoop. Murder focused the mind of all professionals working on it, including court axillary staff. I got to work with some of the best criminal barristers in the country, a pair on each side, usually a QC and a so-called junior, which was no indication of age. Work was guaranteed for several weeks, always a pleasure for a self-employed interpreter competing for jobs with several others. 

There was always something fascinating to learn from the pathologists and other experts. Science had never been my strong point, so there was a lot to learn each time. Did you know for instance, that a lot of the time even the most renowned Home Office pathologists are only able to offer a diagnosis by exclusion to the jury and their only confident conclusion is that the exact cause of death could not be ascertained? Or that in some cases it is impossible to determine whether a brain injury sustained by the deceased, was in fact the cause of death, because the victim did not live long enough after sustaining it, for the injury to be detectable during post mortem examination? 

From the interpreting point of view, pathologists’ evidence is not as daunting as it might initially appear. Experience is everything and I know what to expect by now. Subconjunctival petechial haemorrhage and diatoms are likely to be discussed. It is also a good idea to brush up on words for hyoid bone, cyanosis, and lividity in your working language. 

Watching and re-watching all 25 seasons of Silent Witness helps. 

To a large extent, if you have done one murder trial, you have done them all. Each homicide requires similar type of expert evidence to be presented to the jury. Pathologist’s report is followed by the DNA expert, blood spatter and fibre experts. In cases where mobile phone use is of evidential value, telephone mast cell data is presented in mind-numbing detail. 

DNA experts invariably make me nervous. Did you know, for instance, that if I touch a plastic cup and leave my DNA on it, and then somebody else picks up the same cup, they might pick up some of my DNA from the surface of the cup and if they in turn touch a compromising item, say a knife, some of my DNA can get transferred onto the knife even though I never touched it myself? The science behind secondary DNA transfer puts me off crime. This and prison dinner menu.

For the first time, I did not have the slightest amount of sympathy for the defendant. In all previous murders, I saw the perpetrator as a victim of their circumstances, be it their unhappy upbringing, or their drug and alcohol addictions. I was not finding excuses for them, but I was able to find a reason, however small, to feel sorry for them. 

This time it was  different. A disturbingly realistic possibility emerged early in the case that I might have been sitting next to a serial killer who was so completely depraved and evil, that he had begun to believe in his own version of his life, where he was an unfortunate victim of mistaken identity and extensive conspiracy involving not only the crown prosecution service but also, to a lesser extent, his own defence team. He purported to inhabit an unjust land where the police had falsified his fingerprints, tampered with his interview transcript, and treated him with nothing but malice and prejudice. 

He was now on trial for the unprovoked attack and murder of a kind retired gentleman in his 60s. 

His own version of events was that he had attempted to help the victim who was being attacked by two other men. Details of his version of how the tragic incident unfolded were entirely implausible. His story of what had happened was so utterly fanciful, it was painful to listen, but listen to it we did, over many hours of pre-court conferences. 

So far so typical of a murder case, you might say, and you would be right. 

Author’s Note:

If you wish to find out why this murder trial turned out to be different from other murder trials Cordelia worked on in her interpreting career, you will need to wait until Cordelia Novak’s Back in the Dock book is published; which is likely to be around the third quarter of 2023.

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