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DS called as a witness in murder trial - what on earth should I do?(31 Posts)
Name changed for this, because of obvious sensitivities.
My DS (17) has been called as a witness in a murder trial. He is friends with a boy whose father has been accused of murder, along with another man, and he was at a party that the two accused men turned up at, after allegedly murdering someone and attempting to murder another person.
Obviously I'm worried. Never in a million years would I have imagined that my son or my family could ever be even remotely involved in a murder inquiry.
I have dozens of questions, but I don't even know where/who to ask. I wonder if there are any lawyers reading this who could help me get started?
Firstly, is there anyone I can ask the following questions of 'officially'? If so, who/how, and would asking these Qs be something I can get legal aid for? I'm pretty sure I shouldn't make decisions based just on informal MN advice, but I'm on a relatively low income and can't afford to pay for much legal advice.
As a witness, should DS himself have a lawyer?
I assume he is a witness for the prosecution because the letter is headed "Criminal Justice System" and "The Prosecution Team"... Am I right?
Is he allowed to say no, or is he legally required to give evidence? (He and I both actually think he should give evidence, but he is scared, and doesn't respond well to being backed into a corner, so it would be good to know if he has options).
Are there things we can ask for to protect him, and/or keep him anonymous? (E.g. giving evidence behind a screen/on video/voice distortion, etc.) There are major sensitivities here because the accused and some witnesses and many of their relatives know each other. I live in the same neighbourhood as the mother one of the accused men, and we know each other by sight. The two men have very very nasty reputations (even before the alleged murder), so I am worried for my son's safety, and for my own and my other child's (to a lesser extent) after release and/or especially if they are not convicted.
And (trivial detail but practically important) the letter says the trial could last 2 weeks, and he has to be available throughout. Does that mean we have to be actually present at the court for the whole two weeks? (I will need to arrange time off work and he will need to take time off college). Or will we be given a more specific time?
Last but not least (for now), the letter says there is a Victim Support witness service. Is this reliable/worth using/used to supporting young people rather than adults?
I'd be grateful for any well-informed advice, and I'd also be very pleased to hear from any other parent who has had experience of their child acting as witness.
Thanks very much Holla... Much appreciated.
I suggest you also pm kungfupanda as she is a criminal barrister I think
I presume your son must have previously given a statement to the police or they would not have known of his existence and called as a witness.
Ok the basics .....first, as a witness in a jury trial he does not need his own lawyer.
Read all the information he has been sent. Victim support are very useful and will be able to answer general questions about the mechanics of giving evidence for both adults and young people. If he is worried about giving evidence he needs to contact the witness care unit who wrote to him, if witnesses are truly worried about giving evidence, there are ways by which the prosecution can ask the judge if they can give evidence behind a screen or by CCTV live link. Complete annonymity is used in only very rare cases.
Phone the people who wrote to your son, likely to be the witness care unit at the local police or Crown Prosecution Service. They have to carry out a full needs assessment of all witnesses details here if you don't speak to them they won't know about any concerns you or your son have.
if he has been told to be available for two weeks this means that the trial will take place during that two week period. It will be too early at this stage for the prosecution to tell at what point he will need to be at Court, it is likely they will be able to tell you closer to the time.
Thank you babybarister and shelscrape.
Yes, he gave a statement to the police a while ago.
As well as the possibility of repercussions, he is especially worried about 'getting into trouble' if he gets things 'wrong' and can't answer questions - not only because he was drunk at the time things happened and still (at the very least) hungover when they took his statement, but also because several months have elapsed and his memory of events and of what he said is not clear.
It is all very worrying.
Good grief, I am afraid I don't have the knowledge to answer any of your questions, but as the mother of a 17 year old DS myself (who seems to know some erm... 'interesting' people who worry the life out of me) I sympathise and empathise hugely with you and I am not surprised you are worried witless. I would be too, and I would be climbing the walls with stress about how to protect his anonymity over this - hopefully as he is under 17 he will get anonymity but I don't even know for sure about that.
I just wanted to offer a hand to hold. This would be like a bad dream come true for me.
Sorry, I've just realised that all sounds really negative and will have done nothing to make you feel any better. It was just my knee-jerk reaction coming out, and imagining how I'd feel. Don't listen to me, listen to the person up there ^ who said 'don't worry'.
He wont get in trouble if there are things that he cant remember, or doesn't know. He should tell the court what he does know, and if he isnt sure about something then say so. No-one can be expected to remember every detail of something that happened months ago.
I'm not a barrister or a lawyer or anything and I'm sure witness care and other posters will be far better at answering specific questions... but ds should just answer questions honestly to the best of his ability. If he doesn't know, or can't remember, he should say so.
Haha Nelson, 'bad dream coming true' is exactly my reaction... And although it's comforting to have nice people like Holla saying 'don't worry', I'm afraid it doesn't actually work to stop me...
mellen, edam - thank you I have told him that. But I'm aware that the entire purpose of cross-examination is to undermine a witness, and he is probably going to be quite easily undermined... Or made angry ... He's a averagely bolshy 17yo boy (or perhaps more bolshy than average), and his usual reaction to being told he's wrong or lying, or to being backed into a corner, is to shout and swear and stomp away... So I dread the thought of how he's going to react to cross-examination
I suggest you also pm kungfupanda as she is a criminal barrister I think
OP - so far as I understand it, your DS will be able to read his witness statement in advance (to refresh his memory). I think he could refuse to give evidence, but really he does need to (and he could be supoena--d (sp?) to appear anyway (so would have to). Best to cooperate unless they cannot ensure his safety.
He should not be afraid to say "I don't know/can't remember", regardless of how repetitive and irritating questions are.
He should also never hypothesis (i.e. "well, I don't know but I think that...) - witnesses should always stick to facts (as hypotehsising creates confusion and traps for the witness to then fall into.
Finally - if he doesn't understand a question or he is asked two questions in one "so is it the case that you were at  and your mum did not want you to go there", he should not be afraid to ask what the question is/clarify which question the person wants to have answered first.
Also - in advance of the trial, take him to the criminal court to see a few trials - it will make everything more familiar. Victim support can probably help arrange this.
Thanks Tiago. I think it's very unlikely that DS would even notice that 2 questions were being asked at once, especially when nervous... And as for hypothesising, well, his main concern is that his memory of events is now so hazy that he can't really do anything but guess
Taking him to a criminal court is a good idea, but our nearest is an hour away, so it's going to take some arranging.
I really am feeling overwhelmed by this... And if I feel this bad, imagine how poor DS must feel
In terms of anonymity (screens, video link etc) this should be made automatically available as he is under 18 (assuming you're in England or Wales).
The officer dealing with the case needs.to make an application to the court for them so contact the officer asap; they should also answer most of your questions.
At this stage your DS isn't legally required to give evidence but if the court feels his evidence is needed they could potentially issue a summons requiring him to attend
neverthought - he may be as bolshy as the average teenager in normal circs but I bet he's less bolshy in a formal situation with strangers.
Hope the police/court/witness people are able to reassure and help you and ds. I think it'd be worrying for any parent.
Just to say,this poster is not me,in case anyone is wondering.
That is very good to hear Winkly. Thank you I think it's highly unlikely his evidence is important enough for them to subpoena him... But I tend to think he should: our criminal justice system depends on people being prepared to give evidence, doesn't it? I'd just never before considered how scary that actually is
edam, no he's not, of course. Thanks for the reminder
I'll just add - remind him that people give evidence all the time and he will be fine. Not being able to remember after time has passed is normal - he should just refer back to his written statement and say that what is written is clearly what he recalled at the time.
Another tip is to always go at your own pace. If someone is trying to hurry you through your evidence, speak slowly and don't let them rush you.
Finally (something we should have told a client once as he otherwise had an uncomfortable hour as he wasn't sure what to do) - if you need a loo break, tell the judge!
Gosh, how worrying for you both! On a very minor note, I was a witness for the defence on a dangerous driving course, and the case didn't come to court till a year later. The lawyer for the defendant said to me before we went into court not to worry if I couldn't remember, just to say that as it was over a year ago, I was unsure but to the best of my ability to recall blah blah.
But that was a much lesser case, and I was a real proper grown-up (allegedly..)
I have been summoned to be a witness at court and as far as I know if you receive a summons you must attend (think you get a contempt of court and can be prosecuted if you dont).
I was a witness for the prosecution. When I got to court I was told by the prosecution (barrister, lawyer can't remember) I was not actually going to be called into the stand but was not allowed to leave until the end of the case, just in case they changed their minds. Had to sit in the bulding all day (asked if I could leave for 1/2hr to see ds play Joseph in nativity play in church directly across the road and was told I could be prosecuted for leaving the building ), case went into next day, but at the end of the first day I was told I didnt need to attend for day 2.
My SIL was actually called as a witness and was on the stand for a couple of hours. She found writting it all down beforehand helped enormously with her nerves. Could your ds start writing down the facts as he remembers them and maybe that will jog his memory to remember more/help his nerves?
Thank you, Tiago, Poledra and WAHW, I appreciate you taking the time to comment
The 'loo break' tip is an especially good one!
I have no experience of this but just wondered if it is worth talking through the procedure with your ds and explaining how the barristers might try to trip him up in order to make him angry/bolshy/etc and make him look bad.
If he knows that they are trying to do this, that it's not personal but something they do to everyone deliberately, then it might help him going through the process and not feel like he is being got at, he will be expecting it and therefore be able to react to it better, without getting angry/etc
And maybe get him to watch a couple of episodes of whatever the current legal drama of the moment is where they have nasty barristers doing scary questioning, so he can get a feel of how it might be and see how different people react and how that affects them, the jury, etc Or even a couple of episodes of Law and Order - I know it's US rather than UK but if it's not the sort of thing he would normally watch then I reckon it would be worth it.
I've thought of that too, zipzap, thanks. At the moment, I think it would add to his panic and make it more likely he would refuse point-blank to give evidence willingly. I think on balance it would be better for me to wait until he has decided he will give evidence, before I talk to him about the challenges and/or take him to see a trial in progress.
Not sure I'd want a DS to give evidence in such a trial in case defendants found not guilty.....sorry to be negative about it. Also if he was drunk at the time the defending barrister(s) will probably do everything possible to suggest DS's evidence is not reliable.....could be an unpleasant experience for a young person. I think under 16s can give evidence via video link, don't know if this possible for 17 year old but worth asking if he is subpoenaed and obliged to be a witness.
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