Sunday, November 06, 2011

A malicious and hurtful British prosecution -- thrown out by the jury

This is a country where even rapists are sometimes given a mere "caution"

The ordeal that has blighted all our lives for so long began one Saturday in September last year. Meera, just back to her home from a day’s filming, urged our daughter to accept an invitation to a friend’s party.

Milli took her mother’s advice to take her nose out of her books, borrowed a backless dress from a friend and went. She also wore a giant ring on her middle finger which I had bought her when we visited Macy’s in New York together the previous summer, en route to a father-and-daughter trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The party was for twins (both Milli’s schoolfriends), their sister’s 21st birthday and their parents’ 50th birthdays – a three-in-one reason to celebrate for the thoroughly decent Hale family of Woodford Green in North-East London. The Hales had erected a marquee in their garden, brought in a live band and DJ and provided champagne and cocktails all night for about 200 people.

Also at the party was part-time model Christian Pannell. Milli was dancing with a group of girlfriends as Pannell, together with his friends, who at Milli’s school called themselves ‘The Team’, began prancing around behind the girls.

My daughter felt some drink hit her back. She instinctively threw her arm up to deflect the hand and glass away, and her heavy ring shattered the glass, sending splinters on to Pannell’s face.
Not for a moment had she meant to harm Pannell – she wasn’t even sure who was throwing the drink around. Nor was it a drunken accident. The prosecution accepted she was not drunk.

But Pannell’s injuries were serious enough for him to be taken to hospital, where he received stitches.

It was this apparently blameless accident that would shape the dark months ahead of us. Pannell’s father Johnny, a former nightclub owner in King’s Cross, London, accused our daughter of glassing his son. He told Meera on the phone that he would ‘take her to the cleaners’.

But later that evening Meera was on the phone again. I could have drowned in her tears as she gave me the dreadful news that an old-fashioned police ‘meat wagon’ had arrived to take our darling daughter away. She was being arrested on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm. As a journalist, I knew well that this was no minor accusation. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

At the police station our sweet, innocent girl was put into a room with two gurning drunks. When she finally emerged from being questioned, we all hugged. Meera broke down and I held her up, assuring her it was all one big mistake. Little did I know.

Painstakingly, as we awaited the police investigations over the next months, we began our own enquiries, seeking witnesses to prove Milli’s innocence.

But by now the most horrible bile against our daughter was emerging. Together, the internet and some pupils from her school became her judge and jury. She was ‘a slag’. She needed ‘to be put in front of a firing squad’. Schoolfriends and mates shunned her and abused her. The hate campaign against her was vicious and merciless.

What could Meera do? Only spend countless nights hugging her, sitting with her, trying desperately to take her mind off things. But Milli was not impervious to the abuse. What 17-year-old could be? Slowly I watched my poised, well-balanced daughter descend into a depressed, sullen introvert. She developed a glazed look in her eyes. Where she was once engaged, she became withdrawn and resentful.

Her defence mechanism was becoming clear: the venom had become too much and she was shutting out the world. She hid in her bedroom, switched off her mobile and shut down her Facebook page.

Just as we thought we were coming through the worst of it, the news arrived. Milli was being charged with assault causing actual bodily harm. I have never seen Meera so racked with grief. She is a wonderful mother who has brought up two children with the right amount of love and discipline. They are unspoilt by the celebrity status heaped on her. I could not wish for a better woman to care for my child.

So it broke my heart when, after that awful spring and summer, she collapsed in court after seeing Milli in the dock for the first time, flanked by prison guards. The trial was a brutal test of nerves. The old arguments were rehearsed. But after 14 months and a four-day trial, the jury took minutes to clear Milli and allow her to walk free from the dock.

As Pannell and his father stalked from the court, the judge invited Meera, Milli, Sanjeev and me to leave through his private exit. There, in the low November sun, the 12 jurors walked past and gave us a thumbs-up. The four of us hugged and cried tears of relief.

My daughter should never have been charged. A great deal of money and time was wasted. She lost her innocence in the most insensitive fashion.

Original report here

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