Glasgow High Court: What it's like for an armed robber in the dock – Jim Duffy

Jim Duffy tells of a young man who stood in the dock at Glasgow High Court, with legs shaking, to be sentenced for armed robbery.

Glasgow High Court is not a place you should want to go inside, says Jim Duffy (Picture: John Devlin)
Glasgow High Court is not a place you should want to go inside, says Jim Duffy (Picture: John Devlin)

Glasgow High Court is a place of foreboding. There is the front facade that we all see in the news when a crime reporter stands outside and recounts evidence given and sentence handed down.

Crime reporters all look the same. The proverbial mac coat, the serious look and a notepad full of details of the accused and what the presiding judge said in his closing comments. And for the vast majority of us that is all we have ever seen of the High Court. But, trust me, you don’t want to see inside because what takes place is not particularly pleasant – for anyone.

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Jurors have to wait and wait and then they are corralled, often for weeks, into small rooms as they listen to court cases. It is a far from perfect system as they are used like penal pawns in a big courtroom board game.

Lawyers scurry about conducting their business, wearing black capes and ill-fitting white whigs. They lack sartorial elegance with their grey pinstripe trousers and black brogues. Court staff look grim as they usher and administrate. Police officers pretend they are not nervous as they prep their statements waiting to be summoned to the witness box.

Giving evidence “at the Highs” takes bottle and a clear head. Even Rebus and Taggart get anxious, despite knowing their craft. No, the High Court in Glasgow is an ominous and brutal place that is best avoided. But, what happens when you don’t go out the front door at the end of the day?

I recall many years ago as a young cop doing my week “at the courts”. Not a particularly pleasant experience looking after prisoners who were hours away from possible life sentences. I learned a lot that week and had to grow up fast. Many of those on trial had nothing to lose and consequently were quite happy to tell me where to go when I asked them do do something. I was a “hopper-copper”.

An imitation pistol and £350

Some lawyers and QCs were decent spuds. But, a few I could tell despised “the Polis” and I was made to feel like a young security guard on his first day at work. It was a place of business, law, precedent, systems, ritual, myth and, to be honest, I didn’t like it.

I recall a young prisoner, probably about 22 years of age was being counselled by his lawyer that he should plead guilty.

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The charges are foggy, but I recall it was armed robbery – in short, bursting into a newsagents with an imitation pistol and running out the door with about £350. Not much of a haul for such drastic and dramatic actions.

Nevertheless, he had used an imitation firearm and terrified the newsagent. This was serious. Let’s just call him Tam for now.

During the week, I got to know Tam well. There was a bit of coming and going between him and his lawyer and the prosecution. I wasn’t party to the ins and outs of it, but I gathered from Tam that all would be well if he pled guilty.

Tam was not an aggressive guy and like many young men I had encountered and indeed locked up at that time, he was just born into the wrong family at the wrong time in the wrong housing scheme. He had a few “pre-cons” or previous convictions, but he was not habitually violent. As I spent the week looking after him as he was transported from Barlinnie each day, while on remand, I could see that he was very human and normal. Albeit he had robbed a newsagent in the East End of Glasgow.

Nervous as hell

Sentencing day arrived and from what I could glean, his team were looking for seven years. That would mean he would do about three to four and be out. I suppose not bad for what he had done and the newsagent and Crown could be content that he was about to pay for his crime.

As we sat in the dock together, I could see he was nervous as hell. His lawyer came over to us a few times and whispered stuff in his ear. Not my business and I never asked. But, Tam let me know that they were hoping for a good result as he was pleading guilty to all charges this morning. In essence, making it easy for all concerned.

The judge entered the court and as is the case, everyone stood up. Honestly, you can feel the power of the court and the tension when this happens. I was glad I was a mere cop and was simply on security duty and not in Tam’s shoes.

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The Crown agent and his lawyer said a few words and Tam was instructed to stand up. I had to sit beside him. I could see his left leg was shaking. Even for someone like him who had been in the dock a few times before for small stuff, it was a big day – and he knew it. The judge uttered a few words that reflected the severity of the case. Then the verdict hit like an express train.

In the van to the Bar-L

Twelve years! As soon as it was read out the hairs on the back of my neck rose up.

Tam’s legs gave way and I had to stand up to support him. He was like jelly. Where did this come from? This was not what was suggested by his lawyer. And just like that we were walking down the steep stairs from the dock to the cells. Twelve years for Tam.

I drove home that night a free man. Tam’s lawyer was also free and would no doubt be working up a rebuttal for the next phase of justice. Tam was in a prison van transported to “the Bar-L” to start 12 years. And all for a moment of madness with a plastic gun and 350 quid.

No, you do not want to be anywhere near the High Court. Just watch the guy with the mac on the TV report about the demise of people like Tam.

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