Saturday, 16 May 2009

Your Jury Needs You

I was nurturing a bit of back shelf dismay about never having been asked to do jury service, when the letter plopped onto my doormat. At last, the biro of fate hovering over the electoral roll had dropped onto my name.  Finally, it was my turn to listen to a case and decide the guilt or innocence of a fellow Londoner.  Ahead lay men in wigs, the solemnity of court, the raw theatre of cross examinations and the anthropological thrill of being shut in a room with eleven strangers for a finite amount of time; what was there not to like?  The call to jury duty came with endless bits of paper and booklets explaining what was required of me, advice about what to wear [ballgown and elbow length gloves would have to stay in the cupboard], what I could find to eat within the building and what I should expect to be reimbursed for performing my civic duty.

The day arrived and I got up early to be on time to get inducted into the jury pool. Middlesex Crown Court is a handsome building on the north side of Parliament Square, but within, it has suffered a hideous institutional makeover: excruciating paint combinations [caramel and lemon anyone?] bad chairs, bad lights, bad carpets, leaflets everywhere.  Nothing happened in a hurry.  Various court officials came in and announced things, treating us as if we were very slightly dangerous mental patients.  Behind the scenes, prepartions for each case took hours and even then, some were canceled at the last minute because the defendents had better things to do with their time and failed to show.  
Eighty or so fellow jurists sat about reading until our names were called to go to the various court rooms.  The trial I was called to started after lunch. Eighteen people got whittled to twelve and we filed into our seats. It was alarming how many peple struggled to read out the oath.  

Our case was a middle aged man up on a charge of indecent assault against a twelve-year old girl on a train traveling from Kent into London.  The witnesses were the girl's father and sister, a ticket collector, a policeman and a fellow passenger.  The man was short, thick set, with greasy grey hair, he looked about fifty, but was in bad shape, so could have been younger.  
The girl was a tracksuit-wearing, tall for her age, but chubbily pre-pubescent and inarticulate. She gave her evidence over a video monitor from a nearby room. 

The story went like this: The girl, with her father and older sister, was traveling back home to London after a visit to family in Tonbridge. The night train they were traveling on was partially open plan with some closed compartments.  The family had one of these to themselves. Towards the end of the journey the two girls went down the passage to use the toilet.  As they passed the next door compartment they noticed two men in there and both made eye contact with one of them.
Because the lock was faulty, they went into the toilet together and took it in turns to lean against the door.  Someone tried to push it open, but they both shouted. When they were done, the older sister walked back down the corridor, not noticing her younger sister was not behind. 
According to the girl, she had been drying her hands and as she emerged from the toilet a man suddenly pushed her back in and shoved his hand into her crotch. 
The assault was over in moments, the girl got away and returned to the compartment in tears. Her father asked what was wrong and when she told him, he went to get the guard, but only after calming his daughter, who was frightened of being left alone.

When he returned with the guard she told him she thought the man was from the next door compartment. The guard went and questioned the passenger sitting in there, but when the girl was asked to identify him, she said it was not him.  The passenger said there had been someone else in the compartment, but he had recently left, although there had been no station stop.
Both the girl and the passenger described the man's clothing in detail; the descriptions tallied.

The guard called the police, who ordered the train to stop one station short of its final destination, where they placed a policewoman at the ticket turnstyle while a team searched the train.  They walked the length of it twice, but were unable to find the man.  By this time, the girl was on the platform. As they were about to give up, the policewoman stopped a man carrying a small bag, but his clothes did not fit the description and she was about to let him go, when the girl called out that it was indeed the man and he was arrested.  
The man's story was that he had been sitting in the carriage and decided to move up the train to be closer to the front for when the train reached London Bridge Station.  When the train stopped, he decided he would have a shave and change his clothes.  It was by chance he had been locked in the toilet during the search.  When the train did not move, he got off and headed for the turnstyles. It was a one word against another. The man was slippery; the girl was nervous and when asked what type of accent the man had, said, 'Sort of maybe um Irish-Indian'. When the testimonies were done, the judge sent us to retire telling us he needed a unanimous verdict. I thought the girl was muddled on some very minor points, but convincing on the main ones; I didn't buy what the man had said and if he was lying, then it must be because the girl was telling the truth.  It seemed fairly straight forward. 
We decided to take an initial vote before discussions. I was amazed - it was the opposite of 12 Angry Men: 11 people thought he was not guilty, only thought he was guilty; it was 1 angry woman.  Discussions began, in earnest, with me having to explain myself.  Occasionally, people would say strange things: a man from Sierra Leone said, 'we cannot say, because we were not there.' and a Filipina Harrods worker said, 'It is difficult when they never said the star signs.'  One man sat in the corner reading the Sun for the duration.  'Why should we listen to a posh bird like you?' was another.  After a while, someone else decided they thought the man was guilty.  Another two hours passed and people were getting pissed off. 
 I was 'trapping' them there. tempers were not improved by a third juror saying she was moving across to the 'guilty' verdict.  I suggested we ask the judge for a majority, rather than unanimous verdict.  I felt we were really letting the girl down and if the man was going to get off, she needed to know that not everybody had dismissed her evidence.  The judge said he would need 10-2: we were 9-3 and fucked.  I certainly wasn't going to be able to turn them all.  After another hour the last juror went back to 'not guilty', 'just to break the dead lock'.  And that was that.  It was over.  By the end, I was aware just how heavily the jury system leans towards the defendant.  It had been completely, fascinating, exhausting, frustrating and ultimately  - & even though I lost - democracy in action is always thrilling. I left believing in the jury system.  
The only thing that needs to be changed about it is that it is far too easy for busy, educated people to duck out of it.  For whoever of us on the electoral roll the biro of fate falls upon, it should be a compulsory civic duty, with no exceptions.  
Speaking to a barrister friend later, he said in 98% of cases of assaults on children, the defendants walk because their alleged victims are rarely able to express themselves clearly enough in the witness box.....