A view from the gallery

The conditions were all there for a turbulent trial. Athina Caraba offers a layman’s view of the trial of Michael Piggin and highlights the need for research to ensure trials fully allow for the mental condition of the defendant.

My interest in the case of Michael Piggin, who stood trial in 2013-14 at the Old Bailey on charges of terrorism based on the allegation that he was going to be a “mass shooter”, is a predominantly criminological one.

My PhD thesis is concerned with the crime variedly termed “mass shooting”, “rampage”, or “mass murder” in the United Kingdom. It is a crime so rare in this country (its main instances were the Hungerford (1987), Dunblane (1996) and Cumbria (2010) shootings), that there is little appetite to commit the time and resources necessary for its research. After my daily observation of most of his trial (October-November 2013) and the entirety of his re-trial (March-May 2014), I find myself more convinced than ever of the necessity of such research in order to understand, define, frame and deal with a phenomenon that presents enough challenges to the entire spectrum of the Criminal Justice System to warrant our attention.

The case itself

Michael Piggin’s case is rather remarkable as I believe he is the first adolescent suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome to stand trial in the UK accused of preparing a school shooting (a teenager from Northamptonshire pleaded guilty to similar charges in 2012 and was sentenced in 2013). He was charged with two counts under sections 57(1) and 58(1)(b) of the Terrorism Act 2000 which he denied, and three counts under the Explosive Substances Act 1883 to which he pleaded guilty. Section 57 makes it an offence to possess an article “which gives rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism”; section 58 makes it an offence to collect or make a record of information of a kind likely to be “useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” or possessing a document or record containing information of that kind. Two juries were unable to reach verdicts on the terrorism indictment and the 18-year-old was eventually sentenced in July 2014 for the matters of which he pleaded guilty under sections 37/41 of the Mental Health Act 1983. The case, I would argue, is also unique as it can be read as the “perfect storm” that brought together three key elements: the threat of mass homicidal violence, its definition as terrorism (and the use of the TACT 2000 to prosecute it) and considerations as regards a vulnerable defendant both prior to, and during the trial.

The threat

The threat of mass homicidal violence is one that most countries take very seriously indeed. It is estimated that in the United States two such events take place every month and the repeated experience of workplace and school shootings has led to Congress and Federal government-mandated research into aetiology, operational responses and prevention strategies. As a result, every major organisation and campus in the US now has specific plans in place that (a) help identify potential problems through Threat Assessment protocols involving mental health practitioners and law enforcement representatives and (b) stipulate responses in the case of an active shooter situation. The court was told that Michael Piggin was caught “red-handed” preparing such an attack: he had amassed an arsenal of guns and Improvised Explosive Devices that he intended to use to attack a number of targets (amongst which his school) as “payback”, whilst a video of him testing a homemade ‘Molotov cocktail’ was shown to the jury. His motivation was explained as a combination of personal grievances and racist, extreme right wing ideological and political views. The evidence adduced during the trial revealed, according to the Crown, a self-styled “profile” that adhered, in many ways, to the script followed by adolescent school shooters.


He had suffered from undiagnosed mental health problems and he felt hopeless, alienated, isolated, mocked and rejected. His cultural and ideological confusion was such that he adorned an illustration of Che Guevara with a swastika and an anarchist emblem. But, how to prosecute? The second important aspect of his trial was that the definition chosen for the intended crime was that of terrorism. Michael Piggin was presented as a perfect hybrid between the would-be school shooter and the home-grown “lone wolf” extremist, two of the most feared threats to modern western societies and a particular concern of law enforcement agencies, policy-makers and legislators worldwide.

The legal definition of this type of crime is neither easy nor straightforward, as international experience demonstrates. The courts are relatively rarely involved as many offenders commit suicide or are killed during the attack, but a fair number of trials have taken place. Most recently the trials of Major Nidal Hassan in the US (Fort Hood massacre, 2009) and of Anders Breivik in Norway (Oslo and Utoya attacks, 2011) present an interesting comparison: both crime involved an ideological motivation but, in the first instance, the U.S.

Department of Defense classified the event as workplace violence prior to his court martial where he faced 13 counts of premeditated murder, whereas A. Breivik was convicted of committing acts of terrorism. Similarly, James Holmes, currently awaiting trial for the Aurora cinema theatre shootings (2012) faces 142 criminal counts, including 24 for first-degree murder. It is however the case, that many adolescents accused of plotting school massacres in the US have been tried for terror-related felonies.

The decision by the Crown to prosecute under the TACT 2000 no doubt seemed reasonable to them. On the other hand, there is a general point very well highlighted in the Independent Reviewer’s 2014 report. Arguing for the repeal of section 1(3) of the TACT 2000, David Anderson QC notes that “…It makes a terrorist of the boy who threatens to shoot his teacher on a fascist website…The criminality of such people is obvious, and serious; but the terrorist label is inappropriate” (para 10.48). Although the observation does not specifically refer to the case of Michael Piggin, the argument, I believe, is valid.

Defendant vulnerability

The third and final issue highlighted by this trial, was the defendant’s vulnerability. Michael Piggin has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that remained undiagnosed until his arrest when the nurse at the police station raised the alarm; as his barrister, Mr Ali Bajwa QC said, “…it took the nurse seventeen minutes to spot what everyone else had missed for seventeen years”. The court heard at length from psychiatric experts that the condition (at the very least) poses challenges to the individual in navigating every day life and social interactions, whilst anxiety is one of its main characteristics. In addition, he suffered from mental illness which led to the eventual hospital order.

The positive use of intermediaries

For this reason, the defendant was assisted in the dock by two intermediaries to the presence of which the court, using its discretion, agreed from the outset. Special measures were also agreed during a ground rules hearing to accommodate the defendant’s specific needs in terms of frequency of breaks and to facilitate his communication with the court during his evidence. But I fear that it is sometimes easy for practitioners to overlook just how daunting and formidable a courtroom is, even for the most psychologically robust of individuals. From my layman observer’s vantage point, the usefulness of such arrangements for the benefit of a vulnerable defendant was apparent. There was visible rapport with the intermediaries, which implies a degree of trust and comfort necessary to minimise the impact of feelings of anxiety and ensure his full participation in the proceedings: these officers of the court were people who understood the particularities of his condition and could communicate with him in the appropriate way.

Their presence did not seem to create any disruption to the normal course of the trial, whilst the three-way tailored communication between the intermediaries, the courts and the defendant seems to have benefited all involved. For someone like Michael Piggin, for whom having Asperger’s means a disability when interpreting the world, such assistance seems paramount and a necessary condition for his own understanding of both what he did and what happened to him.

Author details: 
Athina Caraba

Athina is a criminologist currently pursuing a PhD at City University London’s Centre for Law Justice and Journalism. Her research interests include interpersonal violence, the Criminal Justice System and social constructions of crime.