Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Weighing it up

I've sat on a jury several times, but I'm not convinced a jury is any more reliable than a judge when it comes to the verdict being the right one. Both judges and juries are fallible and both can get it horribly wrong.

I'm glad I never landed a really serious case like gang rape, serial killing or sexual trafficking. The responsibility to reach the correct verdict, and to deal with some thoroughly nasty characters, possibly with the whole world watching, would have been nerve-racking. As it was, my cases were relatively minor ones - affray, physical assault, obstructing the police.

Who knows if our verdicts were the true ones? Only the defendants and victims could ever be certain. In one case, a single juror persuaded the rest of us the defendant was guilty rather than innocent. Was she right or were we all taken in by her smooth talking? I have no idea.

I'm also glad I never got a case that went on for months, as some do. I was almost picked for the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, which lasted six weeks, but the person just before me in the queue was approved as juror number twelve.

Jurors are still banned from discussing completed cases. They can't say how they assessed the evidence and how they arrived at the verdict. Regrettable in a way, since we'd all love to know how  an especially controversial verdict was reached. But probably also sensible, since our faith in juries would be rapidly undermined if we discovered that blatant prejudice or the desire to get home again were the main considerations.

But after some serious thinking about my jury experience, I concluded that in the end the crucial factor isn't whether it's a judge or jury that decides, it's the quality of the evidence. Whichever side has the strongest and most compelling evidence will prevail, whoever is weighing it up.

16 comments:

helen devries said...

Colleagues who did criminal work were all of one mind...you must have a jury.
They felt that a professional judge and professional advocates had a common mindset and it needed a jury to bring everyday reasoning to a case.
Mark you, I was friendly with the chap who picked those who were selected for jury service in my area...random, my backside! There were whole rafts of addresses where no summons for jury service would ever be issued.

Bijoux said...

They just need a more efficient system here. I've been summoned an inordinate number of times, despite having just served or sent in a doctor's excuse. When I have served, it's just sitting around for days and then being told the case was settled. I was an alternate juror once and the defendant's attorney was so vile, it certainly worked against him!

nick said...

Helen: I'm not sure the average juror brings "everyday reasoning" to a case. Though having said that, my fellow jurors all took their job seriously and conscientiously, and on the whole weren't predisposed to a particular verdict.

Bijoux: That sounds remarkably inefficient. I was never told a case was settled, I was always wanted. Yes, obnoxious lawyers can definitely have a negative influence. You have to really focus on the evidence and not be swayed by personalities.

tammy j said...

I never did get to serve. I was called once for the jury pool. we were waiting literally standing mostly all day long. then right before closing they told us the case had been settled 'out of court' and we were not needed.
like you I worried I would get on one with murder or some other important and violent crime involved. we never knew. the system of law is both daunting and fascinating.

CheerfulMonk said...

I had federal jury duty once and had to go to Albuquerque for it --- a two hour drive each way. Except for one trial, it was in Santa Fe and I was pleased that I would be able to go home every evening. Nope. We got sequestered for about 5 days.

nick said...

Tammy: The law is an erratic and ramshackle system but it's all that maintains civilised behaviour in the face of potential chaos.

Jean: A two hour drive each way - not much fun. Being penned up for five days can't have been much fun either.

kylie said...

what the hell, Nick?

eleven people allowed one to convince them of a defendant's guilt? In the event that the evidence presented in court was unclear, the assumption you were supposed to make was innocence

Rummuser said...

India does not have a jury system. I however wish that they had. Our legal process takes eternity to get decisions and this is finally receiving the attention that it deserves with a hyper active Supreme Court.

Jenny Woolf said...

I've done jury service twice and what I remember is the waste of time, sitting around, waiting to be picked for a case, then not being needed, etc. etc. I was extremely relieved not to be selected for a long case, I had a good and genuine excuse but I had to stand up in the court and tell the judge in front of everyone what it was. Help!!!!

nick said...

Kylie: Well, I forget the details now, but she was pretty persuasive. She said, this guy may seem innocent, but if you read between the lines, if you put two and two together, it becomes obvious he's lying and it all happened the way the police said it did. Something like that.

Ramana: Same here. Ever since I can remember, legal actions have taken months if not years to come to court. People complain about the delays all the time but nothing changes.

nick said...

Jenny: It's amazing how many people are excused jury service, either automatically or because they have a good reason. Dozens and dozens of jobs exempt you from jury service. And you can be excused for health reasons, a pre-booked holiday, the illness of a close relative, religious festivals, poor understanding of English, or certain care responsibilities. No wonder mugs like us have been called up more than once!

Z said...

My son was called recently - he was told he could postpone it if there was a good reason, but that he'd be given another date. He's the only one in the whole family who's ever been called upon, so perhaps we come in the category Helen described.

It so happens that, this week, I've had a long interview with the police, ending in my signing a witness statement. I'm so sorry to say - because I liked and trusted the person concerned - that I absolutely know he is guilty of fraud. I doubt it'll go to court, though, I hope he'll just plead guilty.

nick said...

Z: Yes, I always wonder how "random" the selection actually is. How disheartening that someone you trusted turns out to be a fraudster. You never know what people are up to on the quiet....

Secret Agent Woman said...

I've only been called to jury duty once, for two cases. I was appalled by the inability to assess evidence by some of my fellow jurors.

nick said...

Agent: I'm surprised to hear that. I thought the jurors I worked with took their job very seriously and weighed up the evidence very carefully.

Liz Hinds said...

I would be a disaster on a jury. Whoever spoke last would convince me I am sure. I am so easily swayed - and indecisive. Also i would faint if there were very graphic details.