This is a very personal blog about my recent experience doing jury service. I hope you find it interesting.
We all know how our justice system works. Asked simple questions about who does what, we would get them right. And yet somehow it wasn’t until my name was called out and I took my place in the jury box that it all began to dawn on me. I wanted to keep my eyes fixed on the desk in front of me and avoid eye contact with anyone but, looking around as I had to, I took in solemn court officials, cold and inscrutable barristers, various others unknown … then the public gallery … and finally realised that the person on my left, who looked as frightened as I felt, was the defendant. The judge appeared benevolent but at that point I was not soothed. The charge was read out. The impact was like a full-on punch in the face (I’ve done some boxing, I know how that feels).
As the judge “welcomed” us and outlined our role, I finally really understood the full significance of being a juror and the weight of that responsibility, even though I previously thought I knew it and would have explained it correctly. As we went straight into the case thoughts like “what if I get it wrong”, “what if I convict someone who is innocent” and “what if I compound the victim’s trauma by failing to recognise guilt” were already flashing across my mind.
I am not going to go into details of either case I sat on but I will say that heroin featured in both and from shockingly early ages. ****ing hell! Pardon my language but that’s how I felt. Heroin? At times it came across as little different than taking an aspirin. I was shocked. It’s nothing any of us haven’t seen or heard about in any given town or city but being face-to-face with it made me start.
The immenseness of the set-back of such a bad start in life can scarcely be overstated – the mountainous obstacle that is created just to get back to something resembling the start line. The importance of a good start – of family, good examples and influences and habits, education and stability – are even greater than we realise.
Nonetheless, those who suffer such immense set-backs must not be allowed to be daunted. The alternative of continuing a downward spiral of crime, punishment, unemployability, being in the care of / dependent on the state, depression, boredom and more drugs is not going to make anyone happy.
From my limited view, alternative measures to prison – rehabilitation and community service type schemes – are not unadulterated successes. Nonetheless, they seem to move some in the right direction so we should not confuse being imperfect with being bad. If those with an impulse to demand compliance and punish failure cannot grasp the human story, they should consider the costs of an aggressive approach. The costs of prison are well documented as are the high rates of recidivism. Now from my first-hand experience, the cost of trials is abundantly clear, too.
I remain convinced of the importance and value of prevention – education, training and other initiatives to encourage good behaviour. That’s not blind support, mind you. Sadly, prevention seems destined to always be undervalued as it’s our nature that we just cannot (fully) appreciate the value of what did not happen.
The significant cost of rehabilitation is well-documented, too, and it may leave you with a sense of throwing good money after bad. Rehabilitation comes with significant responsibilities. It is surely a better alternative than endless punishment and in a certain regard can’t be easy – it demands that people change their (bad) habits when it’s so much easier to fall back into the same old pattern. Hopefully for you that means mundane things like giving up smoking, losing weight or spending more time with your family rather than quitting heroin. And if you’ve found those hard, you can stop calling rehabilitation a soft option. You could call it a retrospective form of prevention if you want.
Another feature of both trials was people being shown to be lying and economical with the truth. I recommend you re-read Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf (for you have surely read it before). It is such an important lesson, no wonder it has endured so long.
After a trial, you can talk about what happened in the court room – that becomes a matter of public record. What you can’t talk about is what happened in the jury retiring room – that must remain forever secret. I’ve not told you the details of my cases and I’m not going to. Here’s why.
There were people on both sides of the argument in court that in some measure I felt sorry for. There were people in court with a lot of problems, not necessarily of their own making. Selected aspects of their lives are paraded before 12 jurors (plus court officials and those in the public gallery). Their faults and mistakes are laid bare; they are there because of the one of the low moments in the lives; they are subject to a degree of scrutiny none of us would want to be put under. This is not just the fate of plaintiff and defendant but witnesses, too.
The experience reinforces my distaste for things like “reality” TV, gossip, the cult of celebrity and anything resembling sitting on one’s arse bitching about others, secure in one’s anonymity. I bet I do it myself but that’s very disappointing. I think it’s rare and I shall try to make it rarer still. I hope you’ll join me in that.
Here, I want to say a few words about my fellow jurors. I have to tread extremely carefully.
Why a jury and why twelve? You can read an interesting historical and international view on Wikipedia. I won’t comment on numbers lest you draw inferences (which may be wrong). In my opinion we benefited from the combined knowledge, experience and views of the collective group. This was not a one-way street of the educated informing the less so. The group was diverse by various measures and the benefit flowed in all directions. I was heartened by people’s ability to explore both sides of an argument and debate it. I found my fellow citizens of the local area to be sensible, reasonable, fair and responsible – not that we were selected on any such basis. Jurors are chosen at random.
Speaking of which – and with the important caveat that this formed no part of either case – people absolutely do not understand probability. Seemingly everyone was absolutely mystified by the same conundrum: how is it that if a jury is chosen at random, some people are never called and yet others are called more than once. I did try explaining that it’s not a rota, it’s random; that it’s precisely because it’s random that some are chosen more than once while others are not chosen at all; that it wouldn’t be random if that were not the case. They didn’t get it. Why is the jury pool not an exact reflection of population of the local area by criteria such as sex, age and race someone wondered. I was reminded of something I already knew: for most people, maths doesn’t come naturally.
In court you see some particularly brainy people and some who are, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, particularly thick. (For the avoidance of doubt, I’ve moved on from talking about the jury pool!) It takes a certain level of education and intelligence (and attention) to appreciate clever arguments and acerbic wit but profound observations and simple truths hit home with pretty much everyone.
What is sometimes really clever is not showing off or being immersed, unaware, in your own world, terms, assumptions and points of reference. Cleverness is sometimes being able to take in all the detail yet from it be able to discern the big picture and the main underlying themes. It is vitally important to be able to see through others’ eyes and to understand them in order to get information out. Keep it simple – we’ve heard it a thousand times but it is no cliché. In this instance, it affects the quality of the witness evidence to the jury. Judges have to be the absolute masters of this – in summarising the case, in picking out key points and in giving directions to the jury.
All jurors in all cases are basically asked the same question. Starting from the assumption that the defendant is not guilty and based solely on the evidence in court, has the prosecution proven the charge(s) against the defendant(s) to the point that you are sure* the defendant is guilty?
[* I can’t resist an aside: “Sure” is the modern lingo in place of the now defunct “beyond a reasonable doubt”. They don’t say “100% sure” although people could be forgiven for adding that or seeing it as one and the same. I can’t help thinking “how can you be (100%) sure of anything?”. That leaves no room for doubt whatsoever, however tiny. It’s not a very critical way of thinking, not good scientific practice and, sorry to come back to it, lacks an appreciation of probability. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” to my mind is a much better term: only something outlandish, extremely improbable or unforeseen by anyone can be dismissed – and I think we can understand why.]
That question to the jury is the only thing you need to worry about. However, we are animals, not machines. Although we faithfully answer the question, others pop into our head and our lines of thought continue involuntarily. Am I sure the defendant is innocent? Different question. What punishment or help will various people involved in the case receive? Not the jury’s concern. You get the picture.
Being a juror is not easy. It is surprisingly tiring and certainly stressful at times. I wasn’t able to walk out of the court each day and switch off from it, leaving it all behind. I didn’t sleep as well. And perhaps right now I’m not just sharing some of the experience but bringing it to a close for myself.
Part way through I switched from using the common parlance of “jury service” to “jury duty”. It was a duty – something we must do even though it may not be easy and we would prefer that we didn’t have to, but we know we must.
It was interesting and at times enjoyable. I have learned and gained from it. I did what I had to do and I did it as best I could.
Thanks for reading such a long blog. I may follow it up with lessons for pensions and financial planning – I am sipphound, after all. Perhaps you have already drawn some for yourself.