This week a partner at the law firm Tuckers received a death threat for representing Jack Shephard, dubbed by the media as the ‘speedboat killer’. The letter stated: “Accidents happen, people get stabbed in London, pets get poisoned, children run over” and was signed off “Heil Hitler”.
Mr Shephard was originally due to stand trial in July 2016 for manslaughter by gross negligence. In December 2015 Mr Shephard and Charlotte Brown had gone on a first date. They had drunk a significant amount of alcohol and went out on Mr Shepard’s speedboat on the River Thames. Both individuals took it in turns to drive the speedboat until it crashed while Mr Shephard was driving and Miss Brown tragically ended up losing her life.
A week before the trial, the Crown Prosecution Service found out that Mr Shepard would not be attending his trial at the Old Bailey. His solicitor, Mr Egan at Tuckers, was aware that he was not intending to turn up to face trial. However, Tuckers stated that they did not know where he was. The trial proceeded in his absence and he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Following his conviction, it appeared no one knew where he was.
There has recently been a renewed interest in the case following a media campaign for the capture of Shephard. Rewards were offered and a media furore followed. Shortly after this, Mr Shephard surfaced in Tiblisi, Georgia. He handed himself in to police after it was announced that the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Georgia confirmed it was working with the Metropolitan Police to trace Shepherd. He was remanded in prison but not before he had given a TV interview.
Under current diplomatic agreements between Georgia and the United Kingdom, Shepherd is eligible for extradition. Had Shepherd been arrested in an EU state, the European arrest warrant system would have been triggered and he would have been put on a flight home. Because Georgia is not in the European Union, it is signatory to a secondary and far slower international extradition deal. Shepard is fighting his extradition back to the United Kingdom.
While this has been happening, Mr Shephard’s legal team have launched an appeal against his conviction “based on what the defence believe were legal errors made during the trial". In December, the Court of Appeal confirmed that a judge had given permission for the appeal against the conviction to go ahead, although permission to appeal against his six-year jail sentence was refused. Even if Shepherd returns to the United Kingdom the appeal against his conviction will still go ahead, but a date for the hearing is yet to be set. Shepherd was eligible for legal aid for his criminal trial and this is automatically extended to advice about his appeal – regardless of whether he is in custody or on the run.
The news that Shepard obtained legal aid to defend himself at trial and that this extends to providing advice about any appeal, has enraged some. It comes as absolutely no surprise to legal aid lawyers who are aware that this is standard practice. What is an aggravating factor for most is that Mr Shepard did not attend his trial. What seems to be being forgotten is the fact that if his legal representatives had instructions, they had a duty to represent him and ensure he still received a fair trial in his absence. Tuckers have released a statement explaining this, and stressed the fact that this includes a duty to file an appeal if they feel that things went wrong in the trial that should not have occurred. Defendants frequently do not attend their trials for various reasons, the fact they are not present does not prevent their advocate from testing the evidence, if they have instructions and making legal arguments, even without instructions.
This, I would argue, is a favourable position. To uphold the proper procedures during trials is an important function of a lawyer, and to ensure everything is done correctly is an aim that everyone should get behind. Should Mr Egan be receiving death threats for simply doing his job? I would hope the answer is obvious. He is seeking to ensure that justice is done and, regardless of the result of the appeal, that should be celebrated. Lawyers should not be lambasted for defending those who are deemed by others to be reprehensible or even indefensible. The job is difficult enough as it is and deserves support rather than criticism. You never know when you may find yourself in need of a vocal advocate on your side, rather than one who is afraid to speak out.