The purpose of the Crime Story weekend, sponsored by New Writing North in association with Northumbria University, was to bring together people with expertise at the cutting edge of crime and look at a fictional crime scenario through the eyes of the experts.

There were police officers, criminologists, forensic specialists, barristers, judges, an ex prisoner, prison charity worker and a prison governor. There was Peter Guttridge, novelist and critic who led the panel events, and novelist, Ann Cleeves, who wrote a fictional crime scenario for the weekend. The final session was with Ann and two people who have worked on the TV dramatisations of Vera and Shetland, based on Ann’s crime series novels set in the north east and in Shetland.

Despite the gruesome gambit “We commissioned a crime; now you can solve it”, the weekend proved to be highly informative, very interesting and eye-opening. One thing that struck me across all the panels and through all the speakers was the importance of compassion, humility and human kindness when dealing with victims, witnesses, and also perpetrators.

The fictional crime

Ann Cleeves wrote a fictional crime scene in which a foster mother discovered her foster son bludgeoned to death at his computer,  in his student flat in Heaton. The house was empty but there was no sign of forced entry. The doors were locked, including his bedroom where she found him.

The story may be read on the website here.

Through panels of experts we were led through the process of what would happen if this crime were real – what are the actions of first responders, what happens when a crime is reported to the police, investigated forensically, when charges are brought and the legal system comes into play and when the defendent goes to prison.

Investigative panel: what happens when people first arrive at the crime scene?

There were three main speakers on the panel – Professor Mike Rowe from Northumbria University, Dr Matthew Bacon  from Sheffield University and Detective Inspector Gordon Makepeace. Detective Superintendent Ken Donnelly had been held up and only appeared towards the end of the panel.

There was much discussion that was informative and interesting and I came away with these key points:

  • First responders to a crime scene are routine uniformed patrol officers, not detectives and the first rule in any response is preservation of life. This means that crime scenes may not always be treated as such in the first instance, until it is ascertained there is no chance of preserving life.
  • These days there are strict policies and procedures that cover 99% of scenarios, for example, road traffic death, suspicious death and so on.  Police organisations are now highly structured and people are trained and channelled into doing things in the right way. However, police officers are human beings and may have bad days.
  • There is the need to follow procedures, but also make intelligent assessments within the procedures and the fact that there is an art to handling a crime scene.
  • There is a budget so in all investigations it is a matter of prioritising the forensic tests required to help provide a result in the case.

With regard to the fictional crime, the police would have ascertained that the young man was deceased, would have removed the foster mother to a safe holding place and set up an inner cordon protecting the scene and the witness and calling for specialist backup who would determine and set up an outer cordon.

Specialist backup would include forensics experts, Home Office pathologist, fingerprint experts and detectives who would begin to run background checks on the boy and his foster mother, the contacts of both and investigate the flat mates and what was occurring on the computer at the time of death.

The audience were invited to outline thoughts on the crime and these included:

  • He may have felt comfortable with the murderer as he was working at the computer and there were no signs of a struggle.
  • His foster mother didn’t seem to know that much about the details of his life – who was the girl in the photo, for example.

Forensics panel: what investigations are done?

Three forensics experts from Northumbria University sat on the panel, each with a different area of forensic expertise. Sophie Carr was an expert in DNA and blood spatter, Dr Kelly Sheridan in fibre and trace evidence and Dr Christopher Laing in digital forensics.

As mentioned in the first panel, forensics is one area of expertise that is called on in murder investigations by the police. The remit of the forensics team is to make an independent assessment of the situation looking at the body and the crime scene, to gather evidence of what has taken place. The aim is always to gather evidence in such a way that it is reliable and robust in terms of presenting to a court in a trial.

Again there was much discussion that was interesting and informative and the key points I came away with were:

  • Mostly the work of forensic experts is done in the lab but sometimes work is done in situ.
  • There are procedures for gathering evidence to ensure it is robust and can be used in a trial.
  • Within each forensic speciality is an awareness of the other forensic specialities in order to prioritise the retrieval of evidence. For example, when examining the mobile phone, you would look first for fingerprints, then at the digital evidence on it.
  • There is a budget for forensic tests applied in a crime and this depends on guidance from the police and where they want to focus their search within their strategy for investigating the case.

With regard to the fictional crime, the blood spatter expert would assess the crime scene to determine the movements of the murderer and the victim. The trails of blood spatter are distinctive and tell a story. Trace fibre evidence is normally recovered from clothing in the lab, but there might be some trace fibre to retrieve from the carpet in situ. And as the victim died at his computer, the digital forensic expert might attend to review what was on the computer at the time before removal to the lab.

Forensically, the scene would be assessed to see if the weapon was left at the scene, if the offender tried to clean up in any way. All of this would suggest what evidence might be found on an offender fleeing the scene.

The audience were invited to outline their thoughts on the forensic aspects of the crime and these included:

  • The victim may have been struck by a bat as there was a larger blood spatter trail on the ceiling.
  • The victim may have been involved in doing something illegal on his computer at the time of death.

Legal panel: what happens after an arrest?

sunday legal panel

Barristers – Christopher Mitford and Tony Cornberg – outlined what happened after an arrest and charge are made. They were joined by HH Judge Prince who outlined the later stages in the legal process – the trial preparation and the trial itself.

Arrested

Once arrested, the defendant goes to the police station. They will either have their own solicitor or a duty solicitor appointed on their behalf who attends the station that day. The suspect is interviewed more than once, and the police put the evidence to the arrested person. They may answer, be silent or have a prepared statement.

The welfare of the offender in the police station is the responsibility of custody sergeant, not the officer in charge of the investigation. The attending solicitor will deal with any concerns regarding welfare.

Charged

If the person is charged, they can be remanded in custody for up to a year and there are a number of plea hearings leading up to the trial which is the end of the process.

Usually, in all cases of murder, a psych assessment is done as a matter of routine because you need to understand how the offender got into this situation.

A summary document is presented by the police for the case, supported by vasts amounts of paperwork.

In a murder case, such as the fictional scenario, there would likely be two barristers for the prosecution and two for the defence. One would be a QC Silk and the other a junior. Both are responsible for preparing the case but in reality the silk is running the show and the junior gets the coffees in as well as being responsible for sifting the vast police paperwork for things that support whichever side of the case they are working on.

Trial

HH Judge Prince outlined the importance of preparation before the trial on both adversarial sides. By the time you get to court, you will have seen all the papers and the court summary and you think of the mechanics ahead. You consider the treatment of child and vulnerable witness and what form cross examination will take whether this is remote access or through pre-recorded sessions. You consider if the equipment required will work in court, and whether there is evidence for a particular issue. You may invite both sides to report the issues they agree upon so that you can focus on the contentious issues in court.

The judge’s role is to oversee the trial and ensure it adheres to the law and follows due process.

During the summing up, the judge must:

  • Set out the law in as simple a construct as possible.
  • Remind the jury of the key points in the evidence.
  • Remind the jury they decide who is lying or not.

During sentencing, the judge must follow the sentencing guidelines which are online. There are two factors involved in calculating the sentence awarded – culpability and degree of harm to the victim.

Appeals

After sentencing, appeals can be made from the crown court to the court of appeal if an error in procedure or law has occurred. This is quite rare. More often appeals are made against the length of a sentence than against the conviction.

Prison panel: what is the prison experience like?

sunday prison panel

An interesting take on the prison experience from three different viewpoints: ex lifer Erwin James, chief executive of NEPACS, Helen Attewell and prison governor, Paddy Fox.

Erwin James – ex prisoner was initially on lock down for 23 hours out of 24. He made his way through prison, with the help of a prison psychologist who introduced him to the idea that he was capable of more. This breakthrough led him to take part time education in prison and he was released after nearly twenty years, following a reduction in sentence for good behaviour.

He described a great deal about what prison life is like, including the prisoner hierarchies, the noise and the smell. He has written a book about his experience inside and is now a Guardian columnist and contributor.

Helen Attewell – NEPACS does a lot of work with prisoners and their families, in the north-east of England, helping them come to terms with what has happened. Help is given practically and in emotional matters. There are housing and benefit issues, issues about children and pets left alone when the defendent goes into prison. There are worries over medication and mental health and how prisoners can keep in contact with their families.

There are statutory rights around visits. Once sentenced, a prisoner is allowed an average of two visits per month. Most prisoners and their families are reluctant to share their feelings with each other. They try to keep up appearances but it is hard to keep family relationships going in these circumstances. Sometimes families disown the offender. Other times they are incredibly loyal through the years. Often people live far away from the prison and have to rely on public transport to visit which makes it difficult.

Paddy Fox – prison governor – talked about the state of shock in which people arrive in prison, the difficulties for women prisoners and the coercion placed on relatives outside by prisoners inside. He also talked about the prisons being politically driven which comes back to the electorate. He talked about dynamic security, the prison guard culture, the concern about the rising number of suicides in prisons and the effects this has also on other prisoners and staff.

So who dunnit?

At the end of the first day, a panel met to discuss where we were in terms of our investigation into the fictional crime. This panel included Dr Kelly Sheridan and Professor Mike Rowe of Northumbria University and the author Margaret Murphy.

saturday panel

There was some pretty lively discussion as to the forensic evidence found and as to who dunnit:

  • The foster mother
  • The foster father
  • The shopkeeper
  • The girl in the photo
  • The other people in the flat

Pretty much anybody who had been mentioned in the original scenario by Ann Cleeves and a few who hadn’t !

In the final session with Ann Cleeves at the end of the second day, it was revealed that quite simply, Ann doesn’t know who dunnit either. The idea was that we should write the ending. So New Writing North requested that audience members who wanted to do this send their completed stories in for them to publish on the website. Watch that space!

Writing for novel or TV drama

We had a fun final session, listening to Ann Cleeves talk about the process of writing her novels, alongside Helen Pepper who has worked on the Vera dramatisations and Gaby Chiappe who has worked on the Shetland dramatisations.

final panel

All three get on and share a sense of humour. There was much laughter in the panel as well as in the audience. We learned that Ann is quite happy for Helen and Gaby to take her characters and stories and change what they need for the TV. The dramas keep the spirit of Ann’s stories.

We also learned some of the reasons behind the changes and that things are not changed carelessly. Sometimes you have to bend the length of time in TV drama in order to fit everything into an hour or two Children are dropped from scripts because of the expense of using children in drama. Often dialogue needs to be created afresh because the story must be told outward through dialogue where in a novel a lot of the story telling can be done in reflection by a character.

The process of writing is different too. While Ann just writes her stories, feeling her way through, Gaby and Helen have TV producers wanting to see their plan and know how many people they will need to cast and when they will need them, for budgeting purposes. There isn’t time when writing for TV to feel your way.

Ann has contracts for two more Vera novels and two more Jimmy Perez novels and is alternating them. She is very happy about this because she has a variety of settings and characters to work with.

The fifth series of Vera is currently filming over the next few months, and there are plans for a new approach to dramatising Shetland. One story will be told over six episodes.

So plenty of reading and watching to look forward to!

Finally …

While I haven’t covered every session that ran over the weekend, I hope that I have given a flavour of what the experience was like. It was, as I said in the introduction, highly informative and a rare opportunity to pose questions directly to a wide variety of experts at the cutting edge of crime.

I write novels - standalone and series - in a number of genres. My main aims are to present strong, developing central characters and to set their stories within realistic other worlds into which you can escape. I hope you enjoy.

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