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Steve Braunias on the trial of Rolf Harris

Steve Braunias on the trial of Rolf Harris

Jul 1, 2014 Crime


Illustration by Daron Parton.

A dirty old man. I suppose that’s what I was looking at when I arrived at Southwark Crown Court in London a few weeks ago and found myself sitting behind Rolf Harris. I could have reached out and touched him except he was sealed inside a kind of glass cage. He looked good. He was in trim shape, light on his feet, an 84-year-old wearing high-waisted pants.

He was found guilty this morning of 12 counts of indecent assault; the judge said that jail was “uppermost in my mind”, as he remanded Harris for sentencing.

Being found guilty doesn’t mean he did it and his defence had a lot going for it. The details against him weren’t especially damning. The 12 counts were all historic; they were events that happened a long time ago, and it was hard to pin down dates, places, movements. But he was buried under the sheer accumulation of details. It was an avalanche. It was a history of abuse, the years heavy with the weight of so many accusations.

A lot was said about his hands. One woman said he had “big hands”, when she described the way he groped her. Harris held up his hands in court. He showed them to the jury. He wanted them to see he did not, in fact, have big hands. They were rather delicate paws, soft and pink. The hardest work they ever did was grip paintbrushes and didgeridoos in all those happy years when he was the greatest children’s entertainer in the Commonwealth. Cheerful, innocent Rolf, with his breezy Australian manner, his remarkable goatee, his extra leg.

But the man in courtroom two at Southwark was Harris, the accused, pinned to his seat in the defence stand by prosecutor Sasha Wass, who very patiently spelled out that he was a pervert, a monster, a liar, unfit for sympathy.

All defendants can elect whether or not to give evidence. Harris volunteered. I was wandering around London one afternoon when I a newspaper poster caught my eye: HARRIS IN BIZARRE COURTROOM SHOW. On his first day on the stand, he had attempted a charm offensive, singing verses from “Jake the Peg” and demonstrating his dear old wobble board to the jury. “The jury smiled,” according to the newspaper story.

I thought: I want to see this. I took the Tube to London Bridge the next morning. It was raining – summer in England – and I walked from the station across the road to the Thames, and then around the corner to the Southwark Crown Court. It was a big ugly building with very narrow windows. I read the day’s court list. Case number T20130553 was for Harris, R. I took the stairs and stepped inside courtroom two, a small, windowless room, where Rolf Harris waited inside his glass cage for the day’s proceedings to begin.

It was the prosecution’s turn to ask him questions. It was the beginning of the end for that trim old devil in an expensive blue suit. I watched Wass go at him for two days and there wasn’t much left of him by the end of it. His wife didn’t seem to have much idea of what was going on; his daughter seethed with rage; Harris got quieter and quieter, gasping for breath. Sentencing is on Friday.

Steve Braunias’ feature article on his visit to London and the trial of Rolf Harris, THE BALLAD OF ROLF & JULIAN, appears in the July issue of Metro, on sale now.


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