Prosecution tells judge that fact Webbe’s accuser may have lied repeatedly doesn’t mean Webbe innocent – but defence barrister puts forward strong case as final arguments are presented
The judge has adjourned the hearing and begun her deliberations in MP Claudia Webbe’s appeal at Southwark Crown Court against her conviction in a magistrate’s court on a single count of harassment, after both prosecution and defence barristers presented their final verbal submissions this morning. Below are the main points of both closing arguments, which included the prosecution asking the judge to find that even if Webbe’s accuser Michelle Merritt lied repeatedly in sworn evidence, it shouldn’t lead the judge to conclude that this meant she wasn’t a reliable witness to Webbe’s alleged guilt.
The prosecution raised the issue of the judge’s panel giving themselves a ‘Lucas direction’ – an instruction not to assume that a witness being proven to have lied means they are lying in all their evidence.
The prosecuting barrister claimed that the defence’s proposition that Claudia Webbe was talking to her partner Lester Thomas and not to Webbe when the supposed threat to reveal naked photos was made had appeared ‘all of a sudden’, even though the recording of the call that was played to the court put beyond doubt that Webbe was involved in an argument with – and allegedly receiving physical abuse from – Lester Thomas when Merritt called Webbe on her mobile.
The judge asked the prosecution what she had to say about fact that call was placed made by Merritt to Webbe and its relevance to the idea that there could be harassment when the supposed harasser had not made the call to the alleged victim. The barrister proposed that this doesn’t prevent it being harassment or amount to entrapment.
While dismissing the idea that the circumstances of the case revealed by the large volume of evidence that the police did not give to Webbe’s defence team before the magistrate’s court hearing made Webbe’s conviction unsafe, the prosecution conceded that the ‘Crown’ accepted that the circumstances are mitigation for Webbe’s alleged conduct.
The barrister also suggested that Webbe not saying her name when Merritt’s friend Gill Smith called her (from a number Webbe did not recognise) was evidence supporting the prosecution’s case.
By contrast with her assertion that Merritt’s seeming lies under oath do not undermine her significance as a witness against Webbe, she then suggested that Webbe responding ‘no comment’ in a police interview is damaging her case (even though Webbe had been advised to respond in that manner). She also suggested that the late night calls (which Webbe has denied making and no phone evidence has been presented to show otherwise) were incriminating: ‘You don’t call someone you’re not friends with at that hour’, even though Merritt called Webbe at a similar time and recorded the call.
For Ms Webbe, barrister Helen Law suggested that rather than supporting the Crown’s case, the facts presented in the hearing fit Webbe’s case better than the prosecution’s.
She added that it was clear that Michelle Merritt had lied – and had done so on every occasion she gave sworn evidence – and that those lies were central to the prosecution’s case, not incidental as in the case of a ‘Lucas direction’.
Ms Law went on to list some of the lies she considered crucial to the case:
- Merritt lied on at least five occasions about her sexual relationship with Webbe’s then-partner Lester Thomas:
– her original 999 call on Mothers’ Day 2019, when she ‘offered up’ without being asked that she was not ‘slagging around’ with Thomas and was ‘not interested in that guy at all’
– to PC Straker the next day, saying she had only a ‘friendship’ with Thomas and that this mere friendship had caused Webbe to become ‘unhinged’
– choosing to lie in her statement given to police, where she said that says Thomas had got back in touch in 2019 and limiting her description of the relationship to a ‘cup of tea and a chat’
– when she said that it was possible that Thomas had naked photos of her because of her ‘previous sexual relationship‘ and that ‘we now maintain just a friendship’, when in fact they were regularly having sex on an ongoing basis
– again on 24 May referring to just a ‘friendship’
Law pointed out that Merritt’s excuse for not mentioning her sexual relationship with Thomas was because she was ‘never asked the question’ – and that she was never asked the question because defence at that time did not have the benefit of the new police disclosures whose existence was revealed to Webbe’s team only in March, just before the appeal hearing was originally supposed to take place.
The defence also pointed out that when Merritt learned download being given to defence, she said she was ‘worried’ about being cross-examined and being ‘called a liar’. Law suggested that by the time of the rearranged hearing currently underway, Merritt knew that she would have to admit she and Thomas were having sex, but that on every occasion before she knew she couldn’t conceal it, that she had lied.
Turning to the supposed ‘acid threat’ of March 2019, which has been alleged but not evidenced, Law suggested that if anything would cause hesitation in continuing to see Lester Thomas such a threat – the most serious part of the allegations – would be the thing to do it – yet Merritt continued to message and see Thomas with no apparent concern.
Law pointed out that when asked in court about how her relationship with Thomas had re-started after the alleged threatening phone call, Merritt claimed ‘memory failed her’ – but Law said that was ‘surprising’, because in the magistrate’s court she gave detailed account of how she bumped into Lester Thomas in a car park.
Law reminded the judge that the evidence showed that within a few weeks Merritt and Thomas ‘were right back where they were before’ – exchanging messages and sex chat and regularly having sex – and suggested that Merritt couldn’t tell truth about that in the magistrate’s hearing because admitting it would have weakened her claim that she was ‘in fear’ because because of the supposed threat.
Similarly, Merritt couldn’t admit they had been meeting earlier than September because it would contradict her timeline.
Law said that another lie was Merritt’s account of what happened after the April 2020 recorded call. She pointed out that Merritt was under no obligation to provide a ‘victim personal statement’, but chose to do so and claimed that because of the call she felt anxious while out and ‘the whole incident has caused me to stop my relationship with Lester Thomas… Claudia has stopped me’.
But in reality she kept on seeing him and having sex with him – and on the very day she went to police station to give that statement she was challenging Thomas in a message asking ‘Is that it, are you whipped?’ Within days they were having sex again – and the relationship ended, not because she was in fear, but because of the escalation of the police investigation investigation in their case against Claudia Webbe
Law told the judge that Merritt’s lies were central to the case and to her motivation for lying and what she hoped to gain. She pointed out that Merritt’s excuse for not mentioning the ongoing sexual relationship, of ‘being a private person’, gave no explanation for what Merritt said in subsequent lies when she could have said ‘we resumed our friendship within a few weeks’ if she had merely wanted to be private about the details.
Law asked, ‘So why did she lie?’ and suggested that the ‘totality of the lies’ were intended to aggravate allegations against Claudia Webbe – and not only intended to do so, but successfully did so in the magistrate’s court, where they were designed to present Webbe as woman who would be ‘unhinged’ by something as innocent as a simple friendship and to present Michelle Merritt as innocent who was living in fear of Webbe.
She went on to suggest that this meant that the court cannot place any reliance on anything Merritt said.
In a further point, Law addressed the evidence given by Merritt’s friend Gill Smith, who had called Webbe’s number after it appeared in an unanswered call. Law described the identical nature of Smith’s and Merritt’s description of the nature of a ‘friendship’ with Lester Thomas as ‘surprising’.
And she said that there was nothing inconsistent between Smith’s account and that of Claudia Webbe: Webbe said then and now that it was Lester who had made the missed call from her phone and Smith had admitted under oath that she didn’t know whether Webbe had heard her say not to call Merritt again and that Webbe might already have hung up.
Turning to the evidence of PC Straker, who had taken Merritt’s complaint and called Claudia Webbe, Law pointed out that Straker had accepted there was a lot of background noise in the call and that he didn’t know whether Webbe had heard him tell her not to call Merritt – and that there was no written follow-up to confirm.
On the claims of Merritt’s friends that she was ‘in fear’, Law put it to the panel that Merritt’s evidence had been accepted in the magistrate’s court as truth but there was plenty of evidence that it was not – and that Merritt’s ‘acting’ skills meant that others’ impression that she was in fear does nothing to support the prosecution’s case.
Law suggested that what phone evidence exists actually undermines the prosecution’s case and fits better with Webbe’s. While Merritt and the prosecution claimed there was correlation between anonymous calls and Merritt’s meetings with Lester Thomas, in fact there were long periods with no calls during a period in which Merritt had admitted there was no pause in contact with Thomas – so where was the supposed correlation?
The barrister also noted that the records showed that all the calls but two were in daytime, not at night and that those two night-time calls were calls that Claudia Webbe maintains she never made (no evidence was ever presented to contradict this) – and those two calls were made when Merritt and Thomas were not together and had not recently met.
Law also asked why Lester Thomas felt he had to say the calls were not him and suggested that the ‘narcissist’ Thomas (as he was described by Merritt) was playing games: ‘Maybe he enjoyed the danger and excitement – after all, he had told Claudia Webbe to call Ms Merritt if she couldn’t reach him.
Law noted that the other calls were always made during a Saturday daytime – not the usual time for pattern of threatening silent calls – and that this pattern fits better with Webbe’s assertion that she was trying to reach Lester Thomas when he was supposed to be out at football or other events. She said that Webbe had thought any calls she placed were longer than the few seconds the prosecution claimed – and at this point the judge interjected to agree that in her experience time is malleable and she has seen many people in court very often get timings drastically wrong. Law concluded that the call evidence did nothing to support the prosecution’s claims.
On the one recorded phone call in evidence, the 25 April 2020 call during an argument with Lester Thomas, Law pointed out that:
- Claudia Webbe is a person of known and positive good character, backed by impressive statements from character witnesses
- Webbe did not make the call to Merritt, Merritt made and sustained the call – and used it to goad Webbe
Law said that the Crown’s claim that Webbe was motivated by sexual jealousy did not fit the facts: a 13 March 2020 message from Merritt to a friend discussed what Merritt been told by Lester Thomas – talking in details about Webbe’s sex life with Thomas, that they were only having sex every four weeks. Merritt told her friend she had asked Thomas what Webbe thought he was doing in between these instances and the answer was not ‘she thinks I’m sleeping with you’, but ‘she thinks I use porn’.
Law noted that this was shortly before the first Covid lockdown – and said that the discovery of meetings during lockdown caused Webbe distress because of her public position and fears for her own safety after a relative died of the virus. Law said that the law means that rational attempts to prevent crime are not harassment – and noted that Webbe’s suspicions began to form during this period, because where would Merritt and Thomas be going as friends when most places were closed?
On the 25 April 2020 recorded call, Law pointed out that Merritt asked Webbe, ‘What’s the problem?’ and that this was a call that Merritt chose to make to Webbe. Law said it was significant that Merritt used the call to goad Webbe, asking why Webbe didn’t trust Lester Thomas – when Merritt knew full well that she and Thomas were having sex.
Law observeed that there are instances when a person can be harassed even though they are the one who placed the call, for example when there is a professional obligation to make the call – but that there was no such obligation in this instance and Merritt could have ended the call at any time.
She added that, on her own unchallenged evidence Claudia Webbe was ‘broken’ by the time that Merritt called her – and that this was in stark contrast with the obvious calmness of Thomas and Merritt during the recorded call. She pointed out that Thomas was ‘physically coming at’ Webbe during the call and that Webbe was very distressed.
She pointed out to the judge that the evidence bundle contains a transcript of a 999 call made by Claudia Webbe’s neighbour on 25 April 20202, at the same time as the Merritt call was recorded. The conversation between the neighbour and the police operator included:
‘I’ve heard her scream before but it’s been a while.’
‘How long has she been screaming?’
‘I don’t know but it’s been a while… [she’s been saying] “let go”… she’s an MP… it’s woken me up’
Law said it was clear this was something more than a verbal argument and pointed out that Webbe had told police her phone ‘had been broken’, using the passive tense – but that when Webbe was in a safer environment she went on to tell police that Thomas had broken her phone and she had been physically attacked by him.
Law noted that Webbe had said she was advised to say ‘no comment’ and that police interview notes showed that when asked about mitigating circumstances, she started to speak but then stopped – and that ‘weighing the niceties of her words’ during the call was not something she was in a position to do in the circumstances.
Law said that the prosecution was attempting to make a lot of the supposed threats to show photos to Merritt’s family, but pointed out that Webbe knew nothing about Merritt’s children or whole family and the two examples of alleged threats were in fact more dissimilar than similar. Webbe has said that in the recorded call she was talking to Lester Thomas, whose family she did know, and not to Merritt.
And Law said that an ‘absolutely critical’ point was that there was no evidence to show that the alleged March 2019 call ever happened as claimed.
In that first call, Webbe is supposed to have used lurid language like ‘slag’ and threatened acid – yet in the recorded call, even under the massive stress of the argument and alleged attack by Lester Thomas, Claudia Webbe did not use even a single instance of bad language, or of slags or acid. Her strict religious upbringing inhibited such speech, but Merritt did not know any of that when made her allegations of March 2019. Ms Law said that if ever there was a moment when Webbe was going to go beyond her normal limits of speech, it was that moment where she was under attack and also receiving a call from Lester Thomas’s sexual partner.
This meant, Law said, that on the contrary, the recorded call is ‘very strong evidence’ that the other alleged calls and especially the claimed call of March 2019 call didn’t happen.
The Judge asked to hear the 999 and 25 April calls again and, after ensuring that they were available, the panel retired to deliberate. The hearing is scheduled to resume at 2pm today.
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