Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Jury Service

The case is over, so I guess I'm allowed to talk about my jury service now. The trial began Monday morning, closing statements were given Tuesday afternoon, and the twelve of us spent several hours today deliberating. Being merely a District (not High) Court case, the details aren't spectacularly exciting, but I'll offer a brief overview anyway.

Two men were charged with 'receiving' (of stolen goods). They bought a $45000 boat off some unknown person for just $15000, in cash, within a couple of days of the theft; the trailer was unregistered and lacked plates; the boat's serial number was illegible and the corners had been chipped away as if someone had tried to remove the plate entirely.

The first man had no real excuse. At least he didn't make much attempt to disguise or conceal the boat, so he presumably didn't know it was stolen. But we judged that he had willfully closed his mind to the possibility that it had been dishonestly obtained, and such recklessness is sufficient for the charges to be upheld.

The second man was, in all likelihood, no less guilty. But there wasn't enough evidence to convict. His lawyer painted him as a mere "second fiddle", supplying some money to his friend who he trusted to take care of the transaction details. In a police statement he claimed to have asked his friend (the first man) about the suspicious matters: in particular, he claimed to have been told the trailer lacked registration and plates because it was a "bach boat" (and didn't need to be taken on the road), that it was cheap because the seller was in a "divorce situation" and wanted to offload the boat quickly, that he had told his friend to get a receipt, and so forth. The crown couldn't offer any contradicting evidence.

We had a lot of trouble agreeing on this one. Funnily enough, it was the three women who were gunning for a guilty verdict, against the protestations of the rest of us. After a while, it became clear that we weren't making any progress. (There was much dispute over irrelevant or unimportant points, which I haven't bothered relating to you here.) In an attempt to break the stalemate and get the discussion back on track, I asked our foreman to ask the judge to clarify a point of law regarding 'recklessness'. I drafted up the question, the letter was passed on to the judge, and we were all called back into the courtroom to hear the answer. The consequence of all this was that we (at last) became focused on a single question: Were the suspicions of #2 laid to rest by the answers he received from his trusted friend (#1)? If so, he was innocent; if not, guilty.

We were pretty evenly split on that question, so had to conclude that there simply wasn't sufficient evidence to establish guilt. All bar one of us soon agreed upon this point, and she (the holdout) eventually gave up in exasperation. So, at about 4pm or so, we returned our verdicts: Guilty for #1, and (if somewhat reluctantly) Not Guilty for #2.

Now for my general impressions...

The first two days were very boring. A lot of the evidence and testimony presented seemed trivial. I was surprised by how poor defence lawyer #1 was at questioning witnesses: he was stuttering and hesitant, and sometimes had difficulty framing his questions in a clear way. He was much better at giving speeches to the jury, however - I was reasonably impressed with his opening and closing remarks.

It was nothing like on TV. Everyone was polite, none of the cross-examinations were the least bit hostile to witnesses. No objections (excepting one polite interruption by one lawyer, but he didn't yell out "objection!" or anything exciting like that). Things all ran very smoothly - almost disappointingly so. Neither defendant testified. Witness testimony was very stark: they outlined the facts (usually just answering "correct" to a long question posed by the lawyers). I expected lawyers to intersperse blunt facts with explanations, drawing out the implications of various statements, e.g. "you previously said that X, so doesn't that mean that...". But there was nothing of that sort; we were left to piece things together ourselves, until the closing statements at least. (That was about the only time we received anything approaching a narrative.)

Today was really fun though. I guess I just like arguing! The other jurors were a nice bunch of people, and we all got along well, though I found some of the older ones a bit frustrating. (I'm afraid I have a very low tolerance for encroaching senility.) Our eventual verdicts were the ones I'd been arguing for, so I was happy with the outcome. The discussions were lively, but in a good way, and our chosen foreman managed to keep the peace. As we left he personally thanked me for my contributions (we had agreed on several points), which was very nice of him.

So, that's my experience of jury service. Pretty good, all up. (Oh, and we were treated to a delicious lunch at a local restaurant mid-deliberation today.) I sure am looking forward to being able to sleep in again though!

Update [6 Feb 05]: The convicted man was eventually sentenced to 150 hours of community service.


  1. What do you think of the merits of a system that use a jury as a basis for determing a persons guilt or innocence?

    I've often thought that juries had a dangerous tendency to forget the points of law and argue about the 'narrative' in deciding on guilt. However my brother who is a lawyer has said to me that I would be suprised how often twelve regular people can arrive at appropriate conclusions that are oblivious to legal eagles. 

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  2. Yeah, the 'wisdom of crowds' and all that :)

    I think we were pretty clear on the points of law. The judge gave a 'summation' which covered all those, and provided us with a written overview of the crucial points. Some jurors were certainly prone to narrative speculation, but others would remind them to keep it grounded in the evidence, and make conclusions based on what the law requires.

    So I think it's a pretty good system. It might be better to simply get the judge to rule - they're obviously more experienced, and as an 'expert' might be expected to make a better decision. But he might be biased, especially if he has access to prejudicial information which would be hidden from a jury.

    Maybe trained/profession jurors would be the ideal solution? I'm not sure. There'd probably be flaws in that approach too. All up, I think the current system is quite adequate, and possibly the best that could practically be hoped for. (I also think it's beneficial to encourage civic participation, so that's another bonus to bear in mind.) 

    Posted by Richard


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