Jury Service – My Experience

British LawI completed two weeks of Jury Service in September 2011 which I thought I would write about having reviewed legislation on freedom of the press and media in legal matters. Having said that, as a precaution even over two years after the case ended, I am still saying far less about the case than the press and avoiding anything that could reveal the crime, the defendant, or the victims. It is also somewhat cathartic and serves to strengthen my memory of the experience.

I am writing this after the trial had completed and reached a verdict, I could not do so earlier due to the potential influence of others opinions. It was hard keeping quiet about such an emotive trial.

Normally a trial lasts less than a week to secure a verdict, the trial on which I was a juror took two full weeks, juries are only used in Crown Court cases. Another trial at the same time lasted just one day after the defendant (the accused) pleaded guilty, perhaps due to overwhelming evidence making it an open and shut case.

The role of jurors collectively is as important as the Judge and is made up of randomly selected members of the public who ultimately decide the fate of the defendant. Jurors can be anyone from any background providing they are mentally healthy, aged 18-65, and having no connection to the trial or anyone involved in the prosecution or the defence.

The judge received the utmost respect at all times from the Prosecutor, who often apologised to the judge for not giving him enough time to write notes. The Defence and Prosecution lawyers each of them always referring to their counterpart as my “learned friend” (pronounced as “lern-edd”). I found the Prosecutor and “His Honour” the judge to both be highly perspicuous in everything they said, which for a juror was very helpful.

Jury service has a reputation for being boring and it is possible that a jury can wait for hours for points of law to be verified and clarified pending the days proceedings before they are summoned to court. I generally found it interesting. My fellow jurors were all really nice people and were very sociable which helped pass the time. Books and outdated magazines and puzzles were available. All of the books and magazines were older than the building itself, a very modern building which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen just a few months earlier.

Jurors were given a smart card  for buying food each day with £5.71 of credit each day and reset at midnight. This was enough for a hot meal and a small cup of tea, or a couple of sandwiches and a coffee. All unspent credit was to be returned to me, plus I could claim travel expenses.

One of the jurors who is not local brought in a local newspaper and showed it to a court security guard, she had to give this up and was advised to avoid learning anything about the case of the media and to not talk about the case outside of the court.

At the start of the trial only and at the request of the Usher, jurors swear on the bible or a holy book of their choice, or make a legally binding affirmation to tell the truth.

The trial comes in five parts, all of which the jury listens to in silence without right to reply. They include the prosecution and the defence, each in great in detail, and toward the end of the trial, each side sums up their case.

The following is my experience and in some ways is unique to the case I was on, and was witnessed by all members of the jury.

First came the prosecution who were acting on behalf of the police. Each allegation was detailed, explaining clearly to the jury any legal terms of which there were few. Witnesses – which may include victims of the crime and/or the defendant themselves – are called into the dock one by one to give their side and to answer questions asked of them, some of which can be very painful even many years after the crime took place. These questions coming from the prosecution and defence can be very difficult for sensitive members of the jury to witness, some may cry.

Videos of police interviewing the defendant were shown on screens around the courtroom. Vulnerable defendants were questioned by the prosecution, and cross-examined by the defence via a live video link between the court and one of the witness rooms elsewhere in the building. The investigating police officers are also questioned in front of the jury. This process took about four days due to the number of allegations and witnesses.

In the second part, the defence begins, acting on behalf of the defendant/accused. This was not a job I would recommend to anyone because cases come to court only when there is sufficient evidence against the defendant. A defendant may claim witnesses are lying, which is a extremely cruel if the victim is genuinely traumatised.

In the English (not British) legal system which covers England and Wales only, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, so the defence need prove nothing, any implication of guilt rests on evidence provided by the prosecution. It is the job of the defence to cross-examine witnesses with the aim of discrediting them and finding weaknesses in their claims, all in front of the jury and the public gallery, which likely includes the friends and relatives of the victims. In the trial I heard, the defence did not at any time call on any character references in defence of the defendant.

The third part took two days and was the process of the Judge (using his detailed notes) summing up the claims from the prosecution to review the claims, reading interview transcriptions, and reviewing the cross-examination of witness accounts from the defence.

The defendant sat in the dock watching the process in silence for the entire duration of the trial, except for when he answered a few questions in the dock.

The fourth part was the deliberation. Following the comprehensive review and summing up by the judge of the defence and prosecution. All twelve members of the jury (myself included) went to the deliberation room where in private (with no court staff, or anyone else) we discussed the details of the case to determine a verdict for each allegation on the indictment (the list of allegations). In order for the verdict to be guilty, there must be a unanimous verdict of “guilty” or or “not guilty”, so all jurors must agree on the same result or the defendant goes free.

I think the system could be improved as there is a chance of peer pressure, but I did not feel this myself. Guidance on how to write well organised notes would also help ensure a fairer trial.

It took us three hours to reach a verdict for each of the many allegations. I heard on TV this evening that you make better decisions when you have drunk a lot of water and need to ‘go’, perhaps due to a sense of urgency, but I think that can lead to rushed and perhaps an incorrect decision. I noticed most jurors, including myself, went to the toilet at the start of the deliberation.

Most of the allegations were straight-forward and verdicts were quickly agreed, but some took time for us to discuss aspects of the allegations to determine whether the complainants (those supporting the prosecution) were reliable and whether or not we believed them and to ensure awareness of any evidence relating to specific claims.

Having completed deliberation and come to a verdict for each allegation, we appointed a jury foreman (a member of the jury) who wrote a note declaring we had reached a verdict, the note was passed to the usher and we were summoned a final time to the courtroom.

The fifth part, now back in court and the judge asked us if we had nominated a foreman and the foreman stood up. The Clerk to the Court then asked the jury foreman with a pre-defined legally binding phrase (but which we all understood) “if we, the jury, had reached a verdict on Count 1 of the indictment”. This was confirmed and the jury remember stated the agreed verdict. The Clerk then asked what the verdict was and they then repeated the allegation and the verdict we gave and again confirmed with us that it was the true opinion of the jury. This was repeated for each of the counts (allegations) in the indictment.

The judge then asked the defendant (the accused) to stand up, then the judge read the verdict to the defendant. Upon hearing this, there was a clearly audible cheer from the public gallery but which was not visible to the jury. The public gallery included witnesses who had not spoken in court, the family of the victim(s) of the crime(s) and members of the public who wish to be there.

The Judge would have sentenced the defendant but sentencing was adjourned pending a report confirming the validity of the defendants claimed physical disabilities. If he is found to be faking his disability, then the sentence will be longer as it would mean they are likely still a threat.

This marked the completion of my jury service.

With the case over, I can reveal some details specific to the case I considered for two weeks, but I’ve not stated the defendants surname or the names of the witnesses or victims out of respect for their privacy. The case was “Regina V Michael”, note Regina is latin for “Queen”, in the UK she is stated as “Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms“.

The defendant was found guilty on all 14 counts/allegations for which he was prosecuted. The counts, some of which were representative examples of similar incidents that happened many times. All of the counts were of either sexual abuse, assault or molestation, attempted rape, and one of rape. Each allegation was detailed in the prosecution statements by the witness and clarified by the prosecutor stating exactly who was touched where and how, and how they reacted. The defendant had married more than once and the case detailed additional allegations not part of the case which happened in Scotland and another country, both of which have an independent legal system and who may rule on allegations that occurred in their respective jurisdictions.

Along with the police, most complainants were the victims and witnesses for the prosecution. Half of them were young children when the crimes started decades ago, but some still broke down in tears in the court, even after all this time. Others still are children and they too cried when they had to talk about it via the court videolink.

There were six complainants in all, most of which had travelled hundreds of miles and included the defendants relatives, a daughter (who had travelled from America to bear witness), a different daughter’s friend, the defendants grandsons, and a carer the defendant met when the carer was 17 and who became a friend to the defendant for 20 years.

Throughout the case, documents were distributed to the jury including introduction to complainants (at the request of members of the jury), agreed facts (agreed by both prosecution and defence), chronology of events, and military records describing the defendant as “exemplary” – the highest level.

I think the hardest part was looking at the facts without empathising. The defendant looked older than he is and I agreed with a juror who said he looks friendly and of the type you would feel safe inviting round for dinner. However the facts & evidence clearly indicate guilt on many counts and that the jury had to send a man with no criminal record who had worked serving his country all his life to what is likely prison for the rest of his life.

I recall phoning the court some months after the case as I was curious as to what the sentence was. The defendant received fourteen years in prison. If he behaves himself, which I think is likely as there will be no potential victims where he is going, then he could be out after seven years, so his release could be in 2017, unless his ill health leads his death in prison.

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