Unlawful Killings – Life, Love and Murder: Trials at the Old Bailey by Her Honour Wendy Joseph QC

Today I’m sharing my thoughts on a non-fiction book, Unlawful Killings by Her Honour Wendy Joseph QC. I saw the author on a panel at Capital Crime and the book immediately grabbed my attention. Who wouldn’t want to hear about the process of a trial told through the eyes and ears of a Judge who has presided over so many murder cases she could probably have filled fifty books? Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Owned Copy
Release Date: 09 June 2022 (HB)
02 March 2023 (PB)
Publisher: Doubleday

About the Book

‘Every day in the UK lives are suddenly, brutally, wickedly taken away. Victims are shot or stabbed. Less often they are strangled or suffocated or beaten to death. Rarely they are poisoned, pushed off high buildings, drowned or set alight. Then there are the many who are killed by dangerous drivers, or corporate gross negligence. There are a lot of ways you can kill someone. I know because I’ve seen most of them at close quarters.’

High-profile murder cases all too often grab our attention in dramatic media headlines – for every unlawful death tells a story. But, unlike most of us, a judge doesn’t get to turn the page and move on. Nor does the defendant, or the family of the victim, nor the many other people who populate the court room.

And yet, each of us has a vested interest in what happens there. And while most people have only the sketchiest idea of what happens inside a Crown Court, any one of us could end up in the witness-box or even in the dock.

With breath-taking skill and deep compassion, the author describes how cases unfold and illustrates exactly what it’s like to be a murder trial judge and a witness to human good and bad. Sometimes very bad.

The fracture lines that run through our society are becoming harder and harder to ignore. From a unique vantage point, the author warns that we do so at our peril.

My Thoughts

This book was absolutely fascinating. Honest, sometimes a little shocking, often witty, but ultimately also undeniably tragic – it deals with the outline of half a dozen murder/attempted murder trials so could be little else – it really takes readers behind the scenes of the justice system in the UK, particularly those cases heard in the Old Bailey. As the author says herself, that historic London landmark is usually preserved for the most heinous of cases, and there is no doubting that murder falls squarely into that category. And yet, as the author’s first hand account shows, there is no such thing as a ‘simple’ or ‘typical’ murder case, and that the lines between justice and injustice can often be blurred.

Having recently sat as a Juror, I can state, first hand, that it is nothing like you see on the TV. Countless hours of waiting around to be called, a slow, almost pedestrian look through the evidence (in this case not murder but still very nasty), and with none of the high energy ‘gotcha’ reveals that you may have been used to seeing on old episodes of Perry Mason. The author very clearly dispels this myth in her narrative, but also takes us behind the scenes of the things we might not witness as jurors. All those moments of lawyerly wrangling that cannot be shared with the jury for fear of prejudicing the outcome. Using a very down to earth, often humorous, tone that always carries that edge and gravitas you might expect from a Judge, Her Honour Wendy Joseph delivers candid and very astute observations of the entire process, dissecting not only the salient parts of the case, but the legal teams, the witnesses, the defendants and even the jury, really making you feel like you are there in the public gallery watching proceedings.

What I liked about the book is that the author has taken half a dozen, very distinct, cases to illustrate just how complicated the case of murder can be. From the attempted murder of a child, to a case impacted by PTSD, there is no one size fits all approach to the ending of a life, and the stories each indicate why it is so hard to simply condemn the act of murder. Justifiably, action should be taken, but the impact of each case is far reaching, and each sad case that unfolds shows how each moment touches and changes so many lives. Each trial is preceded by a short chapter which gives us, as readers, an outline of what is to come. The bare bones of what each trial will be about. There is nothing gratuitous in the evidence portrayed, but it is enough for us to acknowledge and understand the crime. What follows is an unpicking of the complicated process of prosecution and defence, and cases that do not always end in the way, or with the kind of justice, you might expect.

The tone of this book is spot on, humour where appropriate, a deserved mockery of some of the aspects of trial by jury – and the Barristers are in for as much stick as some of the witnesses in this case – but with the serious and often heartbreaking moments acknowledged and reflected in the Judge’s recounting of the case. I particularly liked the chapter in which she greets a class of school children with varying levels of interest in the court room, which shows not only the good work that the author has, and continues to do with the community, but also the absurdity of modern day teaching. The end of the book contains a number of appendices giving more detail about the justice system, sentencing guidelines etc for those who wish to learn more, although these areas are covered in enough detail in the individual cases to demonstrate just how complicated the whole system is. But the author makes them accessible and opens up the workings of the legal system in a way that fascinated, shocked and amused me in equal measure. I think I’d have liked to have sat on a jury under her watchful eye, but as that is not possible, reading this book has been very satisfying.

Definitely recommended if you are at all interested in the law, or just want to see the truth behind all of all crime fiction and drama we devour so regularly.

About the Author

Until March 2022 Her Honour Wendy Joseph KC was a judge at the Old Bailey, sitting on criminal cases, trying mainly allegations of murder and other homicide. She read English and Law at Cambridge, was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1975, became a QC in 1998 and sat as a full-time judge from 2007 to 2022. When she moved to the Old Bailey in 2012 she was the only woman amongst sixteen judges, and only the third woman ever to hold a permanent position there. She was also a Diversity and Community Relations Judge, working to promote understanding between the judiciary and many different sectors of our community, particularly those from less privileged and minority groups. She mentors young people, from a variety of backgrounds, who hope for a career in law and has a special interest in helping women. Unlawful Killings is her first book.

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