When I was called for jury duty over 8 years ago, I really did not know what to expect. My knowledge of a trial was really limited to what I had seen on television dramas and when I gave evidence for the defence in a trial seventeen years ago.
One the first day of jury service, we (the jury) were taken into a court room and told that our case would be one of child abuse, and that it should take approximately two weeks. We were told that if this was not suitable due to personal commitments we could withdraw. We were also told that if we for any reason felt we were unsuitable or felt unable to cope with such a traumatic case, we could be replaced and could be put on another jury.
As a mother I must admit my heart sank, and I imagined having to listen to details and see evidence of the abuse of a small child in great detail. However, I decided that as a level-headed but compassionate person who believes in justice, I should take on this responsibility.
We were told the trial would start the next day, and that we could go home. As I got to the train station, a female member of the jury was also getting the same train, also to my home town. We chatted during the journey and for the rest of the trial we travelled together in both directions. As we had been instructed at the court house never to discuss the trial outside the courtroom with each other or anyone else, we kept to the rules.
When I got home my mind was on the trial, wondering what was in store. It would have been a release to be able to talk to my partner about it, rather than having to keep everything inside. However, looking back it would not have been good, as it may have ended up being the only topic of discussion for some time. To this day my (now) husband does not know the details.
The trial when it eventually started was rather an eye-opener for me. The accuser was no longer a child, but a young adult in her mid-twenties. The allegations of abuse went back to her young childhood and I think into her teens. The accused was her older brother.
To be honest, as the trial was quite a while ago now, I don’t remember many of the details. What I do remember is that there wasn’t any evidence and not too much detail. I kept waiting for something which I could make sense of.
There was only one witness, a female relative, who didn’t actually say very much other than that the accuser had told her (recently) what had happened. She hadn’t actually been witness to any of the alleged acts.
Both the accuser and her relative did not seem very convincing with their answers, in fact I felt they might be lying. It was almost as if it had been rehearsed. They were very careful with their words and the barristers seemed very careful with their questions. However, I told myself that they could be nervous and struggling to speak at all in front of the court.
The accused when he was questioned came across as quite believable with his answers. However, I told myself that this meant nothing, perhaps he’s a very good at lying
I told myself to wait for the evidence, because that would help. I waited in anticipation every day, watching and listening to the barristers performing. They (in particular the prosecution) were the only part of the proceedings that reminded me of a television drama. Although the prosecutor was quite entertaining and obviously enjoying every minute of his performance, looking back I find it rather irritating that a criminal case was treated in this way.
My wait for evidence was in vain.
The barristers’ questioning fell short of my expectation that it would provide anything to go on. I expected the questioning to result in some detail that proved that the accused had at least been in a certain place on a certain date, but I suppose with historical cases that’s very difficult. There was no evidence in the whole trial.
Sure enough, at the end of the two weeks we were told that we should go into a room to try to reach a verdict. After a few hours it came to time to go home. That night on the train home, my travelling companion for the first time said something about the case. She said “I don’t think he did it, I don’t think he’s guilty.” I just looked at her, shook my head to indicate I didn’t want to talk and changed the subject.
I thought about it that night. I was in a situation where I was involved in either letting a paedophile walk free, or jailing an innocent man – with no evidence either way. Ultimately, I was being asked to believe one person over another without any knowledge of the people, their personalities or anything at all. I was being asked to be a lie detector.
The next day, the first person to speak in the jury room said “I think he probably did it”.
It was Friday, the end of two quite tedious weeks and I, just as much as the rest of them wanted it over with. But I couldn’t in all conscience send someone to prison because I wanted to go home. Actually, I still couldn’t believe that we being asked to make this decision at all with nothing to base it on other than which person was lying or which one was the most believable. How could it be? Where did the law stand in this? Surely it can’t be right to send someone to prison without any evidence?
After more debating into the early afternoon, I was astonished to find that the rest of the jury all agreed with the first person, including my travelling companion who the previous night had said she didn’t think he did it.
The feeling that “I think he probably did it” based on no evidence, seemed to be good enough to send a man to jail. So I was the only jury member to vote against the decision. I have no idea whether he was guilty, but to convict him under this uncertainty was wrong in my mind. Perhaps it was easy for me to vote against the majority decision. If it had been the other way round, I’d be wondering if we’d released a paedophile and added to the suffering of a victim.
When the verdict was announced in court the family of the accused, who were sitting across the courtroom about 10 metres away, were in uproar. When we left the court we were told we could leave by a different door to avoid confrontation with the family. This was quite disturbing, but I suppose understandable. If my family member who I believed was innocent was found guilty, I can’t imagine how I would respond. I would be devastated.
During the following weeks it was on my mind a lot. How can this happen? What if someone accused me or my husband for something I hadn’t done or, even worse, my son? How would we prove we were innocent if the allegations related to events that were supposed to have occurred years ago? I’ve thought about this from time to time over the years and pushed it to the back of my mind. However, since the Savile revelations and the knee-jerk reaction which has resulted in high-profile cases, I have thought about it once again.
One thing I do know is that if ever I am called to carry out jury service again, I will opt out of any sex abuse case.
Something is VERY WRONG in a justice system which will allow people to be jailed by a jury which can only guess who is lying. Is this really the law in the United Kingdom? Why do we accept it?