‘By the lawful judgement of his peers’: to be a juror

A copy of the Magna Carta, which enshrined the principle of the trial by jury in English law, although the roots of the jury went back to the reign of Henry II

No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land.

Magna Carta, clause 39

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been sitting as a juror in a criminal trial in London. The case is now over. And although I don’t use this blog to write about myself and my life, I feel compelled to share some of my impressions here.

When I received the jury summons from the HM Courts and Tribunals, I was excited at the idea of performing jury service, but I never thought it would be such a formative, educational and ultimately rewarding experience. I’m writing this hours after the completion of the trial and after eight hours of deliberating on the verdict. I feel I’ve been so transformed and so enriched that the memory of these last two weeks will forever be laser-burned on my brain.

The case was the worst a jury could get. A man accused of raping his niece over a period of ten years. A difficult theme, which was to become as uncomfortable as the case was difficult. A long list of frightful charges which makes one forget that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. I couldn’t help it. The moment I saw the indictment and heard the prosecution’s case, I was certain the defendant was guilty. How could it have been otherwise, the victim’s testimony was too overwhelming to be even doubted. I had my ideas about child rape, about sexual abuse, about how common it is, especially in the community the victim and the defendant were part of, to abuse a minor and get away with it. There was no question the girl was telling the truth. As I was struggling to keep my judgment suspended, I kept telling myself to stay as close to the evidence as possible and to leave my assumptions at the courtroom door. But my gut was telling me he was guilty, while reason was keeping a low profile. It was emotional to the point of bursting.

I listened patiently to a lineup of witnesses day after day, examined and cross-examined and re-examined. I watched the prosecution and the defence teams trying to undermine each others’ witnesses and to lead them astray into contradictions and falsehood. I saw the evidence mounting on each side, rebuttal upon rebuttal, corroborations and contradictions galore. I cheered silently for each counsel as they demonstrated the unreliability of a witness. Just like the defendant enjoys the presumption of innocence, the witness enjoys the presumption of reliability until the examiner shows the witness to be untrustworthy. Out of this maelstrom, facts are found and truth is courted, one hopes.

The judge is generally seen as the seat and wielder of power in the courtroom. But in a jury trial, the real power belongs to the jury. The jurors have the last word, the verdict is theirs. As I was sitting in the jury box (more like a bubble for reasons of Covid), I could see how the whole courtroom acknowledges the sovereignty of the jury. Wigless and humbly dressed -compared to the robed judge and lawyers, the jury is meant to stand for a cross-section of society, individuals chosen at random from all walks of life. To my right was a London student, while a mechanic who couldn’t read sat to my left. It felt broad, true and reassuring.

To be judged is to be judged by one’s peers. This is one of the most lasting contributions of Germanic law to the Anglo-American legal tradition. Many jurisdictions of Roman law also allow for jury trials on some criminal cases, but most trials don’t require a jury. I can’t say that I’ve lost sleep because of this case, but the idea that a man’s future depended directly on me was disturbing, to say the least.

The stakes were high. The cost of arriving at the wrong verdict was huge. To find the defendant guilty was to send him to prison for many years. To acquit him was to potentially let an abuser and a pedophile go free, free to ruin other people’s lives and make a mockery of justice.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t measure the true amplitude of the trial until later. The courtroom rituals, the peagentry, the performance, the weight of history and tradition with lawyers wearing wigs and using formulaic language signaled to me that my role was simply to be there, to make sure the gig was done by the book, that all boxes, including the jury box, had been ticked – and filled. But it quickly became obvious that my presence, alongside the other eleven jurors, was essential. It suddently dawned on me, as I was listening to the alleged victim’s cringing testimony, that I had the power to send a man behind bars. Or at least the twelfth part of that power. It was dizzying. I remember I went home after the first day in court feeling a strange, unprecedented and overwhelming sense of responsibility. It wasn’t a game, or a show, anymore.

Without going into too much detail, I would say the case was fairly difficult and the truth hard to discern. During the proceedings, I entertained pretty much every kind of hypothetical question, reduction to the absurd, as it was becoming more and more clear that the evidence wasn’t going to be strong on either side. Some witnesses concealed the truth, others lied downright. Few could be trusted with every detail. And, alas, the devil was in the detail. A jigsaw puzzle picture still makes sense even when some pieces are missing. But when each piece belongs to a different picture, it’s hard to make sense of the overall design. So I fought my way through the thicket of ambiguities and approximations, trying, with honesty, to reach a satisfying level of certainty as to what really happened. In last analysis, nothing was definitive. Each scenario invited a countervailing one, each piece of evidence could go both ways. I’d never felt more torn, never more confused.

After the evidence had been presented and exhausted, it was time for the lawyers to make their closing speeches. This proved to be one of the most delightful parts of the trial, as each lawyer harnessed the strongest points of their case to persuade the jury. I felt like being in the presence of giants. I was reminded of the long and venerable tradition of rhetoric and the undeniable power of words and dialectic. As the lawyers faced the jury and unfurled their oratory, I understood that the road to fact-finding is long and arduous. And flexing my critical muscle, I waited patiently to be carried into conviction.

For man alone of animals is capable of deliberation.

Aristotle, History of Animals

We left the courtroom to begin our deliberations, which lasted for eight hours. Getting twelve people to agree on the same version of the events and the same verdict was very challenging. The creators of the sitcom Friends once said that every single gag had to be validated unanimously by the writers around the table, and if one of them didn’t laugh, the gag was out. The reason for this, they noted, was that if a dozen or so people can’t all laugh at a joke, then how could they expect a whole nation to laugh as well? To some extent, the jury, I think, works the same. If you can’t get twelve random jurors to agree, there can be no expectation of true justice being delivered. There were bad jokes in Friends vetted unanimously by the writers, and there are always wrong verdicts returned by jurors finding themselves in complete agreement. But, as I was to see it myself, this principle proves to be one of the best fail-safe mechanisms available.

The judge had ensured that we were not be manoeuvred by the lawyers’ silver tongue by summing up the evidence and providing detailed directions about how to use the evidence, what to avoid and how best to remain impartial during deliberation. The evidence isn’t fact. The evidence may be contradictory. Not every fact, once we’d established it, had the same weight. And most of all, the jurors can’t rely on the balance of probabilities to reach a conclusion. In other words, I had to be convinced. Anything lower than that wasn’t enough. It proved to be an approach which couldn’t allow for doubt. To be convinced of the defendant’s guilt or lack of it on the basis of evidence made it impossible, I thought, to entertain any contrary views at a lower level of knowledge – opinion, gut feeling, impression, belief. As I debated with the other jurors, I understood why the legal process is the highest form of adjudication. Its standards and methodology are the most reliable tools of establishing guilt or innocence that humanity has built for itself.

So we returned an unanimous verdict. We may have got it wrong. Certainly, we wished we’d had more evidence, more clarity. But we were convinced. And when we went home, none of us could say that although we were convinced, we thought that on some level or for whatever other reason, the verdict should have gone the other way. Although I hoped – and I hope all the other jurors did too – that we helped the cause of justice and truth.

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