Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Why are jury deliberations sacrosanct? Interesting article in this morning's Guardian.

I served on a jury in the summer of 1998. I tried desperately to get out of it on the basis of work commitments, but couldn't. When I got there, I was the only person going to work before and after (court hours are 10 till 4) and my fellow jurists largely older/unemployed/people with dull jobs) thought I was a little strange sitting there with my laptop between doing nothing and getting a coffee.

There's a lot of sitting around when you do jury service.

Day one, you have to get there at 0930 and they show you a video about how to behave on jury service. It's a Monday in central London - hardly anyone gets there on time. The clerk rewinds the video every time someone new arrives. We see the beginning a hundred and nine times and never see the end. I suggested, quietly, afterwards, that maybe they could play it on a loop. The clerk replied "that's not the way we do things around here."

Of course, theoretically, I'd have to kill you if I tell you about this, but, hey, I've never killed anyone before, why should I start now?

I was eventually on two cases. I was called for a few more, but my involvement was hampered by knowing lots of barristers, and juries having to be recalled. I was not popular with the judges. Especially because I had hurt my back and couldn't sit down for more than twenty minutes. Whenever I stood up, the Judge looked at me, askance.

The first case was a young guy who worked in a leather jacket shop and had allegedly stolen a leather jacket. It was never quite clear if it had been on some kind of loan, but the case was complicated by two things; first, that his barrister appeared to be pissed most of the time and couldn't remember his name or any of the salient facts, and second, that he was an illegal immigrant, and a case that went against him would mean that he was deported to somewhere that was not particularly safe.

The second case was a recovering drug addict on a methadone treatment from a clinic (bizarrely, one my friend N's boyfriend had been working in at the time, and I remembered him telling me the story), who had pulled an extremely realistic fake gun on the clinci staff in order to get more faux drugs. Many of the staff had got PTSD as a result.

Deliberations in both jury rooms was very much along the lines of "got a guilty face", "can't trust those foreigners", "drug addicts are all the same" and other reasonably thought out views. Most people hadn't written notes in the second, more complex case, and some had no recollection of the key facts.

There was no serious debate. People clearly went on gut feel. There was a moment at the beginning of the second (gun) jury meeting where we all sat round a table and no-one said anything. No-one. I was willing someone else to speak. Then a queue at Kwik-Save conversation started.

But I got incensed because we were deciding someone's future in such a no-shit way. And I realised that I was probably the only person in the room with hadracha - leadership - training. Finally, all those years of being in a Jewish Youth Movement paid off.

I picked up the fake gun and held in a particularly obnoxious woman's face. She looked scared.

"Are you frightened?" I asked her.


"Well, that's all we have to decide. What was his intention at the moment he pulled the gun. Did he intent to seriously frighten people?"

Suddenly, eleven people agreed with me.

Juries. Truly powerful groups who decide whatever the most persuasive person in the room wants them to. And of course, now I've told you this story, I'll have to kill you.

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