When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few years ago I was in court for the trial of a defendant who had been accused of attempted murder.
The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.
At about 9.35 a.m., the defendant was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench. Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left. The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gesture and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.
In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question.
I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.
By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. The prisoner was then escorted back downstairs to the holding area to await the prison bus. I have been in that holding area a number of times to visit different people. It smells really bad. But their relations are allowed to visit them and also buy food for them from outside. The Thai courts are very busy and sometimes it can be up to a year before people go to court. And once the case starts, there can be a number of delays which sometimes means it might be several months before the verdict is finally read. In the meantime, if the defendant is not given bail, or cannot afford to pay it, he has to stay all this time locked up in prison. I will tell you about what to expect if you are ever sent to a Thai prison another time.