Think of the days when women wearing fashionable hats queued to get into defended divorce cases; when newspapers published special editions in sensational murder trials; when the railways ran excursion trains to the hangings. Think, even, of the days of the Kray twins, when tickets for the public gallery went like hot cakes. All gone.
Certainly all gone in Melbourne, Australia, where a high-profile murder trial is taking place. In the dock is 56-year-old Stephen Asling, accused of killing cracksman and fixer Graham Kinniburgh, known as The Munster, once unofficial head of the Victorian underworld, whose son and daughter married into Melburnian society. Kinniburgh was shot dead outside his home in 2003, allegedly by Asling and one Terry Blewitt, who promptly disappeared.
‘Get there early, or you won’t get in,’ said my friend and so, to use a modern term, I duly rocked up to the Victorian Supreme Court at 10:20. I needn’t have bothered. There were three of us in the public gallery and there was one fewer when I went back a second time.
The courtroom, built in the late 1880s, is most imposing but the acoustics, as the judge pointed out, are appalling. Since the jury was in full sight of the gallery I observed that 11 of them were right-handed, although I am not sure how this should be interpreted. I also saw that only the back row was provided with desks on which members could write their notes. They did at least get a mid-morning break.
There were the usual technical problems. ‘Not the best link I’ve seen’, remarked the judge as a woman, totally out of sync, told how she heard a firework which may or may not have been a gunshot.
The trial had started splendidly with the first witness, who admitted murder (times several) and drug-dealing, saying he was now telling the truth to ‘get things off my chest’. The possibility of help with parole in the distant future had not occurred to him. After that it degenerated from the spectators’ point of view into police and lawyer speak. It looks as if it will run for another month. No wonder people have lost interest in attending.
Asling denies murder and the case continues.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor