Earlier in the year I was selected for jury service, something I'd always wanted to do. I have a passing (perhaps passed) interest in the criminal justice system, or at least crime, so the opportunity to become involved in some small way was one I looked forward to. And not just because my employer was obliged to give me two weeks paid leave to attend. I think enough time has now elapsed for me to talk fairly non-specifically about my experience as a first-time juror, back in the summer.
Having been told where and when to report, I arrived at the appointed time and place, bringing with me the requested identification, some lunch, and a book. The jurors' suite at the crown court was a secure area, equipped with plenty of comfy seats, a small restaurant, quiet space for work, and cloak rooms. I and the other assmbled new jurors were given some instructions and watched an introductory film. It was explained that there were a number of courtrooms, each with their own programme of trials, sentencing and other business. The clerk explained that business at court moved at its own pace, and that there would be lots of sitting around doing nothing as a result. My kind of gig!
Towards the end of a long, uneventful day, after several juries had already been selected for other courtrooms, my name was on the next list to be read out. Fifteen of us filed upstairs to the courtroom, and mine was amongst the twelve names to be selected at random for the trial. The 'spare' three jurors were sent back downstairs. It was late in the day, so after we were each sworn in (no Bible for me thanks), there was only time enough for the Judge to explain the nature of the trial before we were dismissed for the day. It was a pretty serious offence - kind of a reckless endangerment thing with a resulting manslaughter charge. It was thought the trial would last for most of the two-week period of jury service. Wandering back to the waiting area to collect our things, it was obvious that some were not at all looking forward to hearing the details of the case, whilst others couldn't wait to find out more.
Day two began in confusion. One of the selected jurors had declared some kind of vague familial link to the defending barrister, and after discussion the judge had decided to dismiss the entire jury and select a new one. Since most other 'spare' people had by now been selected for other juries, it was a very similar group of fifteen people who again ascended the stairs to the courtroom to be selected. As the names were read out by the clerk, my chance of sitting on this jury diminished. With each passing name that wasn't mine, a sense of disappointment grew. I had had the best part of a day to get used to being on this relatively high profile jury and didn't want to be excluded from it now. Nine names became ten; ten became eleven; then, with just a 25% chance of becoming the final juror, my luck turned. Ignoring the temptation to punch the air and trying hard not to smile, I answered "Yes" to my name and took my seat amongst the Mark II jury.
My luck had more than turned, it turned out, as the new order of selection meant that I would be sitting next to a striking young gentleman who had caught my eye the previous day. He had worn a suit for day one, but had begun a trend of wearing fewer clothes by the day, as the weather became hotter, and it became obvious that jurors tended to wear whatever the hell they liked. He had a youthful yet chiseled look about him, with dark hair which was slightly messy in a conventional sort of way, and he wore glasses. Now that the suit had been dispensed with, it was possible to make out the contours of a frame which had obviously been fashioned through many hours in some gymnasium or other. Even through the dullest parts of the trial, it seemed I was destined never to be bored.
I will not go into the circumstances of the case in any more detail than I already have. Suffice it to say, someone had died, and it was alleged that the accused was responsible. The individuals involved in the case had, it seemed, led fairly chaotic lives, having had all sorts of minor skirmishes with the law in the past, often associated with alcohol or drugs. The testimony we heard from the accused, and indeed from some of the key witnesses, was at times muddled, hard to follow, full of inconsistencies and, one suspected, exaggerations. Yet there were certain irrefutible facts and pieces of evidence to help us.
The jurors were allowed to discuss the case amongst themselves outside the courtroom, and we began to congregate in a quiet corner during lunchtimes and other breaks to share our thoughts. Opinion was varied, and tended to swing from day to day based on what we had heard most recently. The consensus seemed to be that we would only bring clarity to our collective thoughts when given the opportunity to retire to consider our verdict. Some made extensive notes throughout, others hardly any. My bench-mate started to wear shorts and t-shirts, leaving less to my imagination as the trial progressed. His arms and legs really were very pleasant viewing indeed.
Defence followed prosecution. On the penultimate day, the judge gave his summation. We jurors had expected this to bring some measure of clarity and direction to the days of evidence we had just heard. Sadly, we literally received a summary of the facts - not particularly helpful save for one or two points of law.
And so to the deliberation room. Half a day (in our case) of talking through what we had seen and heard. Thankfully there was early agreement that most of what we had heard in the way of background had little bearing on the facts of the case. We asked to review certain pieces of evidence, and, having satisfied ourselves beyond that famed reasonable doubt, came to an agreement - a unanimous verdict of guilty. The defendant was sentenced some time later to quite a number of years in prison.
Maybe I'm a natural cynic, or maybe I was on a better than average jury, but the whole experience far exceeded my expectations. Each individual on the jury was fully involved in the deliberative process, and each brought something to it. So far as I could see there was no prejudice, no complacency, and no lack of humanity in the way our verdict was reached. Whilst the verdict did not go the defendant's way, I believe him fortunate to have come before the group of people he did. I don't know whether trial by jury always works, but I have seen firsthand that it can work very well.
Most of the jury, myself included, shared a couple of drinks together in a local bar after the final day of the trial. Some of them exchanged telephone numbers and facebook details, and as far as I know are still in touch with one another. I however, returned to my normal life and never contacted any of them ever again.