The central fact of the John Terry trial at Westminster magistrates’ court this week was that he shouted “f—— black c—“ at Anton Ferdinand. It was never in dispute.
The offending words were caught on camera and broadcast live to millions of viewers across the world from Loftus Road, where Chelsea were losing a Premier League game 1-0 to Queens Park Rangers.
But almost the instant the phrase left his mouth, Terry claimed to his team-mate Ashley Cole that Ferdinand had said it first, falsely accusing the Chelsea captain of racially abusing him.
In his judgment Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle seemed to reject Terry’s explanation. “It is inherently unlikely that [Ferdinand] should firstly accuse Terry of calling him [those words], then shortly after the match completely deny that he had made such a comment, and then maintain that false account throughout the police investigation and throughout this trial”, wrote Riddle. “There is no history of animosity between the two men. The supposed motivation is slight.”
But even though he did not find Terry’s explanation of events persuasive, other misgivings nagged at Riddle. “However I accept that it is possible that Mr Terry believed at the time, and believes now, that such an accusation was made,” he said.
“It is therefore possible that what he said was not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him. In those circumstances, there being a doubt, the only verdict the court can record is one of not guilty.” And that is the nub of it. Reasonable doubt. If it had been proved incontrovertibly that he said that despicable phrase as an insult to Ferdinand, Terry would now have a criminal record.
But, as Riddle helpfully spelt out in his judgment: “In all criminal courts in this country a defendant is found guilty only if the court is sure of guilt. If there is reasonable doubt then the defendant is entitled to be acquitted.” Terry’s legal team, led by George Carter-Stephenson QC, successfully argued in their submission that the evidence presented to the court did not meet the “criminal standard” demanded by a court of law to prove the charges against him. The Football Association’s tribunal system requires a very different standard of proof.
Football justice is considered on the balance of probabilities, a fact that will weigh heavily on the former England captain. Indeed, Carter-Stephenson’s “criminal standard” defence and Riddle’s judgment together invite the case to be reconsidered under football’s disciplinary processes.
“It is clear that the prosecution has built a strong case,” wrote Riddle. “I had no hesitation in refusing [the defence’s] submission of no-case-to-answer based on those facts.” So for all the reasonable doubt that saved him there was reasonable suspicion to try Terry and that is the balance that football must now consider.
It was not for a lack of evidence that the prosecution failed yesterday. But mitigating against it was how in crucial points in the footage Terry’s face is obscured, either by Ashley Cole’s or John Obi Mikel’s. As Terry himself pointed out from the witness box on Wednesday: “No one in this room can say. There’s no video on Anton and that’s the unfortunate thing.” This is where the criminal case falls down. “It is impossible to be sure exactly what were the words spoken by Mr Terry at the relevant time,” wrote Riddle. “It is impossible to be sure exactly what was said to him at the relevant time by Mr Ferdinand.
“Nobody has been able to show that he is lying. Lip readers do not provide evidence that categorically contradicts his account. What at first may have seemed clear to the non-expert is less clear now.” Riddle described Terry as “a credible witness”, adding that Ferdinand can reasonably be considered “brave” for having taken to the witness box. But the Chief Magistrate did speculate about why Terry sought out a steward to fetch Ferdinand in the away dressing room after the match.
“One explanation is that Mr Terry realised that what happened on the pitch could cause him serious difficulties,” wrote Riddle. “He wanted to head that off by a conversation with Mr Ferdinand. Mr Ferdinand either was or wasn’t aware of the comment, either from him or from Mr Terry.
“Either way he did not want to make anything of it and wanted to put the incident behind him. This seems to be the most plausible account of what happened.” The FA process will be a rehearsal of the same arguments, which contain terms that will have caused all but the most “industrial” Chelsea fan present to blench. Nineteen times “f—” or “f——” appear in Riddle’s judgment; 24 times the word “c—“. Even “knobhead” makes six appearances.
That is infantile, offensive, “playground abuse”, certainly. But in the eyes of the courts it is not a crime.