Thursday, 21 August 2008

Mistrial by jury

Hugely-expensive court cases are collapsing in Britain because jurors are doing their own private research - including trawling the internet for information on the person accused. This is despite the judges warning them not to.

The person on trial, who has gone through months of anxiety and nail-biting waiting for the case to start, has to wait all over again after the judge is forced to end the case and order a retrial at a later date.

The case against an 18 year old man charged with murdering a 71 year old cabbie had to be abandoned at Newcastle. And in London the trial of a celebrity's nanny accused of child cruelty was also abruptly dropped.

In Newcastle the juror had actually gone to the death scene, taken photos and done research into his own theories about what happened on the night in question. And then discussed his ideas with other jurors.

I can understand a juror's temptation to make their own inquiries into things they're not clear about. I did jury service twice in London and there were often things that were puzzling or confusing, or even totally unbelievable.

But the whole point of a court case is that the jury makes a decision based on what they've been told in court - which hopefully is rigorously tested for bias or lies. If jurors start doing their own digging, they'll come across all sorts of dubious rumours and anecdotes which can seriously slant their decision.

If I was accused of something and I thought the jurors were busy sniffing around on their own I'd be horrified.

Unfortunately the internet makes it all too easy to find information about people at the click of a mouse. And nobody even knows you're doing it unless you're careless enough to tell someone.

In the end, you can only trust people to take the job of deciding a person's guilt or innocence seriously and not deliberately put a spanner in the works. Happily from my own experience, most jurors seem extremely conscientious about holding someone else's fate in their hands.

16 comments:

Baino said...

Wow hadn't heard of that Nick although I suppose it goes on here as well. Were the cases acquitted or just dropped until another jury selection? It's rather like trial by media also influencing jurors before someone goes to trial. I guess the problem is also the slowness of the criminal courts. If we could try people soon after their arrest there would be less time for information to 'leak' the jury could be selected and seconded and locked away until the end of the session. Probably not practical in long trials. I've been selected about five times but whilst I was a single mum with kids under 18 I was exempt. Not sure what I'd do if that summons came through tomorrow!

Nick said...

The woman was retried and convicted while the man avoided a retrial because the judge found him not guilty for lack of evidence. Yes, getting people into court sooner would help, also shortening the court cases which can be dragged on for months by overpaid lawyers.

Quickroute said...

very difficult to get a fair trial these days if it's a publicised case. The media and cell phones, internet etc makes it impossible. People doing their own investigations however is a little scary!

Nick said...

Quicky - That's true, it's increasingly common for people to claim their trial has been prejudiced by advance coverage. The media does its best to publish juicy information about those involved.

Thriftcriminal said...

Sounds like CSI has a lot to answer for.

Nick said...

Thrifty - I guess not only CSI but all those TV series where some intrepid loner / maverick cop does their own fearless probing and uncovers the facts everyone else overlooked.

Los Angelista said...

Good grief, folks are trying to get all CSI/Law & Order, aren't they? It's hard enough to find someone who hasn't heard about a case, but it's ridiculous for folks to go researching it themselves. I hope the folks who do so get prosecuted somehow.

Nick said...

Liz - I know a lot of lawyers just see court cases as a game in which they try to outmanoeuvre their opponents, but if the jurors join in the game too all hell breaks loose!

I think in theory they could be charged with contempt of court but in practice they're just given a bollocking by the judge.

conortje said...

Everyone wants to be Jessica Fletcher, or is that just me ;-)

Nick said...

Yes, it's probably just you! So you see yourself as a doughty middle-aged lady - what could this mean? Personally, I prefer Rebus and his world-weary scouring for the bad apples in the barrel.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I have never entertained any fantasies about morphing into Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple, actually. Or even Angela Lansbury.

We live in a do-it-yourself world. This is one of the many repercussions of an egoistic mentality that deludes people into believing they can do everything better than the experts.

Nick said...

No, I couldn't see you as any of those characters, Heart, you're too unique! It's true about people thinking they can outsmart the experts. Too many people challenging anything and everything, sometimes justifiably but often just for the sheer hell of it.

Wisewebwoman said...

I wasn't aware of this, Nick. What a twist! but as you say, juror curiosity making it very difficult to get a fair trial.
I am reminded of "12 Angry Men", one of my personal favourites, and the lone hold out juror.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

www - 12 Angry Men reminds me of my first jury experience, when exactly that happened. One woman persuaded the rest of us that the person accused was guilty, even though we had all started out believing in his innocence. She put all the evidence together in such a way that his guilt was inescapable. Amazing what one person's persistence can do.

Lover of Nature said...

thanks for stopping by and your right older women who look natural exude more beauty than the plastic made up dolls.

Nick said...

Nature - They do indeed, but difficult to link that topic with jury trials. Slightly off-subject, methinks. Hang on though - talking of age, I wonder if older jurors are more conscientious than younger ones? Or vice versa?