These last few days, sitting outside the courtroom waiting for the jury to deliver the verdict, chatting to police officers and interpreters transported me back to that café under the tree in Penang, just outside the courthouse. The temperature outside soared to a scorching 30, not unlike the temperature all year round on the island. Camera crews and photographers waiting outside the court building for the Jill Dando murder case, were wilting in the heat, but they couldn’t move until they got their pix of the day.
Watching the hustle bustle of men and women bewigged and in black robes carrying huge files and huger books for reference, I remembered similar activities along corridors of the impressive Penang courthouse. They were the likes of Karpal Singh, the late P Annamalai and their entourage, or Rajasingam and many more whose names escaped me now. I was young and naïve, wondering around the courthouse, looking for stories that would give me an impressive headline in the next day’s paper. I used to be in awe of hardcore journalists who wouldn’t be contented with just a life sentence.
“What? Only life, ah?” A death sentence would ensure a front page story and certainly a byline that’s a few katis in weight!
While waiting for verdicts, sentencing, or just whiling away our time for a more ‘interesting’ case, we’d sit and have chats with prosecutors, lawyers and police officers about all sorts of things. There was such a bond, and that was how we’d get tips about new cases; murder, drug traffickings, or small non headline grabbing cases like being caught redhanded watching blue films or stealing a bicycle. Once in a long while, we’d get sensational stories of illegal topless and scantily clad dancers who hid things where things shouldn’t be hidden. That would create quite a sensation, and would even solicit a smile and a chuckle from the usually stern magistrate.
The Penang courtrooms had witnessed a lot of stories of drugs in false bottom suitcases, or ridiculously high platform shoes hiding contraband goods. Even more ridiculous were the mitigation.
Lunch can be a long drawn out affair of nasi kandar at one of the restaurants dotting the streets of Penang, or at a more fanciful place with air condition depending on what time of the month it was. Or sometimes, none at all as we chased after lawyers, court clerks and police officers for documents to copy, especially after a verdict or a sentencing. Then a dash back to the office to bang on the old Remington which would then be typed out again by the teleprinter to the HQ in KL, while you stood in a queue; all depending on the urgency of the stories. How time has changed. Now, a quick call on the mobile, or sitting by the roadside with a laptop and a mobile internet connection, the story goes within a few minutes.
Court reporting was a training ground for all cub journalists. That was where we learned to listen attentively and take notes accurately. It used to be easy because in most cases, questions and answers were translated back, and very slowly too for the judge to note down everything.
But what I found difficult was to remove myself emotionally from the case. One that got me real bad was a case where both husband and wife were in the dock for drug trafficking and we all know that a guilty verdict would mean death. The wife was about to deliver – so there was a plea bargain. The husband would plead guilty and get life and the wife, was either given a lesser sentence or acquitted to look after the baby.
Another one was the Jelutong murder where the father massacred all his children as he thought life was not worth living when his wife flaunted her infidelities before his very eyes. Even the prosecution officer cried when he read out the son’s plea for the father not to kill him.
The last time I was at the Old Bailey, I heard an old Malay gentleman pleading his case. He stood there, a Quran in his hand and looked up at me at the public gallery and smiled in recognition at a familiar face. He spent 7 years inside and I visited him only twice. He wrote to me from Brixton and sent me visiting orders.
It is all very well to have hefty bylines but it is certainly a very draining experience - emotionally. Everyone is a victim of circumstances. Until today, I have forgotten, how emotionally draining it can be.