If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday 6 January 2012

Jury Service

A comment on my recent post about the Stephen Lawrence trial made me think. Derf:
It is still a mess. It will remain a mess. I am glad I wasn't on the jury.
Yep, me too. Trying to sift actual hard evidence out of the morass of hearsay, political pressure and 'that' video footage must have required the wisdom of Solomon. I'm sure they have done it right, and I congratulate them for it. It reminded me of some jury service I did many years ago. It must have been in about 1976 or 1977, so I expect that I won't get into trouble for talking about it if I don't mention names.

The jury system is one of the foundation stones of our civilisation. Anyone who is accused of a crime has a right for the evidence to be heard by a jury of his or her peers, and they - and only they - decide on guilt or innocence. Not the judge, nor the police, nor the newspapers, nor the Home Secretary. It's not a perfect system, but it's better than anything else yet invented. Balanced with the right to a jury trial is the duty to perform jury service when asked to do so. Most people use every trick in the book to get out of it, but I was in my early 20s and was quite happy to do my jury service just for the experience.

The case concerned a couple of young men who had been badly beaten up by some local thugs. The young men were in court, nice chaps, good families, well-spoken. The thugs were there too, and suitably shaven-headed, tattooed and thuggish. The young men had been involved with a Sealed Knot re-enactment of a Civil War battle near to Leeds, and in the evening they had strayed into the Kirkstall Road area to find a pub and have a drink. In full Cavalier dress: long, flowing hair, floppy hat with feathers, thigh-boots. When you live in a city, you get to know where you can go, and where it is not advisable. I would definitely have been in two minds over going to this pub dressed normally, never mind in fancy dress. Inevitably, a bit of name-calling started. I'm pretty sure the word 'poof' was involved, but in 1976 this was just a low-grade meaningless insult, not a crime against humanity. A fight ensued in which the young men, for all their Civil War bravado, were soundly thumped. Cuts and bruises, nothing major, but the Police got involved and quickly rounded up the local talent. Eventually, it ended up in court.

The judge was very keen to point out that we should try the case on the evidence before us, and not on anything we might think about the accused, or have heard from others, or might assume from their appearance and demeanour. That is absolutely right and proper: anything else is the stuff of mob rule, witch-hunts and lynchings. But it does raise a problem - common sense has to take a back seat.

In the case I was sitting on, this was indeed a problem. For one thing, the young men had been involved that afternoon in a battlefield enactment, and admitted that they had received some of their injuries from that. They were trying to argue that this cut was from an opposing halberd, whereas this one was inflicted by the defandants; this bruise was got in a ruck with some Roundheads, whereas this bruise was not. It was a flimsy case from the outset. Also, it seemed from the evidence that the police had been told of an assault and had immediately gone out and arrested three of the most likely candidates. In this they were probably right - the three defendants seemed a nasty lot and, if they weren't guilty of this assault, it is likely that they were guilty of others. But that's not evidence. The behaviour of the police witnesses in court was appalling. The Sergeant came in and gave his evidence and sat down. The Constable who gave evidence next positioned himself so that he could see the Sergeant, and paused before answering every question until he had seen whether the Sergeant nodded or shook his head. It was blatant collusion, and every single jury member noticed it. Added to the fact that there was no direct evidence to link the three to the assault, other than their general nastiness and being in the area at the time, and we had no option but to find them not guilty. Common sense said they probably did it; the evidence, such as it was, did not support it. The police Sergeant snorted in disgust and it didn't help when the biggest of the three, who had to file out of the court past the jury box, nodded at me in passing and said "Thanks, mate". I had been elected jury foreman, and it was me who had to announce the verdicts. An uncomfortable moment.

In retrospect, the police were doing their best to nail some pretty unpleasant characters, and they probably knew that the three had committed the assaults, or had been involved in similar offences which had not got as far as a court appearance. But the police's opinion is not enough to convict in a British court, and rightly so. No doubt the police were mightily pissed off with the jury and felt that we were stopping them doing their job, but that's the way our justice system works, and I'd rather live under this than any other system. Get the evidence, persuade a jury, convict. No evidence, no crime.

I have been reminded of this by the Stephen Lawrence trial, and the criticism of the police in their apparent tardiness in searching and then arresting the racist thugs that committed this dreadful crime. An anonymous tip-off isn't evidence, and we are so quick to blame the police for heavy-handedness when it suits us. Perhaps they were just aware that the case needed to be strong, and that arresting and searching people without sufficient cause would make a successful prosecution less, not more, likely.


  1. Maybe now that Double Jeopardy has been scrapped for the Steven Lawrence case, the cops can arrest those thugs you found not guilty and try them again.

    I'm glad I was not on the jury either because I would have been very tempted to say not guilty just to reinforce the original decision, as I don't beleive they should have been brought before the courts a second time.

    Murderers going free is bad but removing centuries old freedoms on a political crusade is much worse.

  2. "But it does raise a problem - common sense has to take a back seat."

    I agree with most of what you say - but this phrase I took exception to. Common sense - based on ones own experiences and therefore prejudices (of whatever nature) have no room in a courtroom. As a motorcyclist I'm sure you've even experienced some form of prejudice - a biker in full leathers can be a omninous sight to some. Common sense is also subjective - I work in I.T so therefore I have none, but everyone has their own idea of natural justice - corruptible as that is, ergo we have the rule of law.

    The criminal record of a defendant has no relevance whatsoever in showing whether they are guilty or not of the crime they are currently being tried for. Where it does have relevance is in sentencing and the Judge who decides that is in full possession of all the facts.

    As for double jeopardy - the lawrence case is not the first time its been employed - two other cases, William Dunlop and Mark Weston both have been convicted following a second trial. The crimes are of such a nature, that failure to respond to the change in circumstances would be criminal in itself.

    Also, just to address you on a point of law - do not forget, even our so called 'civilisation' waives the right to trial by jury when it suits us. The Diplock Courts in Northern Ireland and now domestically too:


    Justified? No, not really - it is a measure of a failing civilisation when such methids are employed.

  3. Perhaps if I had been more precise, and said "what might be regarded in other circumstances as common sense has to take a back seat"? I agree entirely - prejudice, bias, hearsay and all those other 'common' failings have no place in a court. The case must be tried according to the evidence presented and nothing more. But the life-experience of the jurors (provided it is applied with maturity and cool reason) is surely what makes justice human, and I would not dismiss it. Otherwise, guilt or innocence becomes a mere calculation, and young children could be jurors as easily as adults.

    Perhaps for 'common sense' I meant that gut feeling of right and wrong that makes justice meaningful. Poor choice of words.

    Personally, I don't see a problem with a slight alteration to the double jeopardy principle in a time of technological advance. Before, a man could be aquitted of murder on a Monday, and a photograph of him committing it could be produced on the Tuesday and nothing could be done. Now, if 'significant new evidence' emerges, a re-trial may be ordered. DNA advances are perhaps the most obvious example, providing evidence such that, if it had been available at the original trial, the outcome was likely to have been different. In Mediaeval times, once the 'facts' had been established it was unlikely that further persuasive evidence could be found. Today, that is not only possible, it is likely. I see no problem with the law changing to account for this. The bar for the 'significant new' evidence is set fairly high, as I understand it.

    I am aware that the automatic right to trial by jury has been abandoned, and a great shame that it was.

  4. "The bar for the 'significant new' evidence is set fairly high, as I understand it."

    Well, two things there. First, I expect that to be weakened the first time the state or a pressure group like the ones driving the Lawrence trial gets thwarted by the evidence not being as significant as they would like, and second, that 'significant new evidence' is (currently!) the smallest drop of blood ever to secure a conviction.

  5. Richard - Double Jeopardy also serves to make sure the police do their job properly. In the case of your man who is aquitted on Monday, if the police did not have enough evidence for a conviction then they shouldn't have gone to trial. The photo found on Tuesday would then have meant they could go to trial.

    Nowe there is the chance they may have been investigating a case for a while but are lacking evidence because they suspect the wrong person and they just say, "Oh well this will have to do, let's run with it. We can always try again later if necessary".

  6. JuliaM and Bucko, your caveats noted and (sadly) agreed with. This kind of thing is going to happen whenever we have a state over our heads to arrange things to its own agenda or convenience. But without a state, who would have brought SL's killers to trial? Everything is a compromise.

  7. Defendant acquitted of a major crime in 1975 and then, as a result of the miracle of DNA, is back in the frame in 2012 needs to go on trial again for the same crime he was acquitted of all those years ago. We move with the times. As for the case you cited, I quite agree. For 30 years I was in and out of a witness box `for a living`. I never lied, never cheated, always told it as it happened and watched many a guilty person walk away acquitted, along with the rightly convicted. I never arrested or reported anyone who didn't deserve to go to court and I was allowed to use my discretion to warn or caution those who I judged would benefit from my personal assessment. Those who were convicted did not affect me any more than those who were acquitted - in the end I genuinely didn't give a toss about what I thought, but always felt for the victims who always end up at the bottom of the pile, forgotten.


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