Tag Archives: justice

Jury Service

On Thursday I finished my stint as a juror. It was a very interesting experience and one that I would happily repeat. My fortnight was as action-packed as it could be. I was lucky; many others go on Jury Service to find that they sit around twiddling their thumbs, reading books or doing jigsaws.

So, what did my fortnight involve?

  • 1 book
  • 2 completed jigsaws
  • 3 cases
  • 2 court rooms
  • 3 judges
  • 6 barristers
  • 13 live witnesses
  • 34 jurors
  • over 8 hours of deliberation
  • 2 guilty verdicts, 1 ‘yes’ verdict

I didn’t talk about jury service very much while I was doing it. As jurors we ‘judge the evidence’ so talking about the intricacies of a case with anyone else, no matter how briefly, could lead to us being influenced by people who haven’t sat in the jury box and committed to truthfully carrying out our duties.

Now it’s over, our verdicts are in and those involved in the cases are waiting on their fate I thought I’d sum up my impressions of the experience (and hopefully not find myself getting into trouble for doing so).

The first day of Jury Service was quite frustrating as we waited for court to spring into life. We, the new jurors (9 of us – 8 men and 1 woman) were briefed and then left to our own devices. Eventually 6 names were called and they were taken away. I was one of those left behind and after another pause we were taken next door to join those who had started jury service in the previous week. At about 3pm we were called for and a jury was chosen. Mine was the last name to be called and so my life as a juror began. I don’t know what happened to those who didn’t make it but their Monday must have been very disappointing.

In the first case the defendant was unable to enter a plea because he suffered from an as yet undiagnosed mental illness. As a result we were asked establish whether or not he was the individual that had committed the acts as they were alleged (rather than establish a guilty/not guilty position). The case spilled over onto Tuesday but once the Crown made its case we quickly reached a unanimous verdict.

Because there were no beds available in a secure hospital this meant the defendant was held on remand. This was the first time I experienced the most disquieting aspect of jury service – the aftermath. This young man needed care as well as punishment but due to a lack of space at the relevant place he was having to be held in an unsatisfactory environment. The judge made sure that he would not be left languishing in prison by placing his case under review in 2 weeks’ time. That’s this coming week. Hopefully a bed will have been found and a proper medical assessment can be carried out.

So, by Tuesday afternoon I was a seasoned juror and we very quickly started another case. This was a bit more involved and saw us given document bundles over 200 pages long (we were lucky, the judge’s was about twice that). The Scarborough Evening News reported on this case so if you want to know the finer points you can follow this link. This was a complex case involving six different counts so when we started our deliberations on Thursday afternoon we knew it would take some time to reach our verdict and were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on all counts by the end of the day. At some point on the Thursday I was elected foreman and the following morning after we reconvened we reached unanimous verdicts and I had to stand up and tell the judge our decision.

Again the repercussions of that couldn’t be part of our thinking. The defendant in this case had four children and one of the outcomes of our verdict we discovered was a custodial sentence having thought that unlikely when sat in the jury room. She will be sentenced in a fortnight.

Monday began with waiting but it was much shorter than the previous week (there wasn’t enough time to complete a jigsaw). In fact we were set up and ready to go before lunch. This was the most difficult of the three cases and evidenced by the fact we spent over 5 hours deliberating from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning. Because we were taking so long the judge called us in to say that he would accept a majority verdict but didn’t really want to hear from us unless it was unanimous, which, in the end, it was.

The guilty party’s sentencing won’t take place for another 4 weeks during which time his life has to be dismantled. The defendant’s barrister outlined the consequences of our decision to the judge who had been all set to immediately take him into custody. While you know that these are consequences of what he has done it’s difficult because ultimately those other people will suffer because of the decision we made coupled to the crime he committed.

What happened in the jury room is not for public consumption but it definitely made me believe in the jury system as a tool of delivering justice. When you sit in that jury box you are one of 12 people asked to make a judgement on evidence that has the potential to alter the future of whoever is sat in the dock, and those who are dependant on them. None of my juries decided they wanted to make the evidence fit a particular version of events. None of my juries pre-judged the verdicts after one or two sessions. All of my juries carefully considered the issues, pieced together the evidence, understood the law as the judge directed and came to verdicts that were, for us, beyond doubt.

It’s hard because in two of the cases that absence of doubt has consequences far beyond just the individual represented there whether it’s for family members, employees or customers. The human cost of a crime isn’t just counted by the direct victim(s).

It’s hard because that can mean we have more compassion for those affected by the activity of court than for those affected by the original crime (although I imagine that depends largely on the nature of the case).

It’s hard because we weren’t present when decisions were made, actions taken and words written. We know that someone who has taken to the stand has got the wrong end of the stick either maliciously or accidentally – not everyone has told us the true version of events.

It’s hard because there are legal professionals who sit in robes and wigs making the case for the prosecution, defending the accused and judging the law. They go through masses of preparation and sit in court all year round. They will see similar cases and will expect a particular verdict. After all, not only are they as capable of judging the evidence as us, they actually know the ins and outs of law and crime.

Being a juror is not easy. It shouldn’t be. Being a juror ought to be difficult, it ought to keep you thinking about justice, criminality and perception because then you’re not just treating it flippantly. It has been suggested that we should have professional juries but the idea of being tried by ‘a jury of your peers’ means that real men and women sit round a table and hammer out a decision.

Across the two weeks people brought papers into the jury rooms. We had Guardians, and Suns; Mails and Mirrors and we discussed the nature of justice. There was a lot of reflection in those rooms about the ease with which we jump to conclusions, the way in which the media portray the decisions reached by jurors and the wider perception of how judges respond (generally with too much leniency). Whilst people might not reconsider their response to crime, or the way they treat former offenders the act of serving on a jury clearly affords the opportunity to ponder what justice and truth look like for ourselves because we can’t refer to anyone else.

Those waiting to be sentenced probably don’t think that they’re very lucky at the moment. Having been on the inside of the jury room I think they were. I think all involved with those three cases were because the 34 people charged with considering the evidence did so even-handedly, carefully and fairly.

I would have loved to be writing this saying that I sat on three cases and found three people innocent, to have cleared the names of the accused. Sadly, unanimously, the evidence in front of us did not let us do that. If our minds were even 1% doubtful then we could not have returned the verdicts we did. Perhaps that surprised our judges, our lawyers and those who stood accused. I hope it didn’t.



Two years ago I spent some time in Sierra Leone researching my Masters dissertation. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index it’s the poorest country on the planet. The conflict that tore that country apart is a harrowing story of child soldiers, brutal amputations and destroyed communities. My dissertation examined the gap between the ‘peace’ of Special Courts and Truth & Reconciliation Committees (TRC) and the reality of that ‘peace’ as experienced by men, women and children without homes or prospects and carrying the scars of the conflict.

Central to that debate was justice. On the one hand the belief that criminal justice equates to peace and in stark contrast the reality on the ground. The work of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society addressed the needs of lives torn apart by conflict by seeking advocacy and reconciliation, particularly on behalf of child soldiers.

The consequence was not communities that rejected these men and women, often guilty of heinous crimes, but to actively engage in reconciliation and the rebuilding of their lives together. Clearly it wasn’t enough to try Foday Sankoh or Charles Taylor. Not only did everyone know that those indicted were guilty but most of them died prior to facing trial. So what did attempted legal restitution achieve? The lives of those I met were being pieced together by people getting together, talking and forgiving before moving on as a restored community.

This is the poorest and the least developed country in the world recovering from untold evil. Not by punishing the people responsible for those crimes but actively welcoming them back into their midst. Very challenging.

The reason this is brought to mind is the recent media attention surrounding Ronnie Briggs, Peter Connelly and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Briggs has been released from prison on compassionate grounds and it’s being suggested that the same thing should be possible for al-Megrahi whilst the identities of those involved in the death of Peter Connelly have this week been made public. Alongside those pictures have been discussions about giving them new identities when they are released from prison, causing outrange at the waste of taxpayers’ cash.

Predictably there are loud voices of dissent. And it’s the same whenever someone is sentenced for a high profile crime. Wherever there is the pain of loss, those responsible need to suffer in a way that ‘fits the crime’. But what punishment ever truly fits a crime on that basis? Is it like for like? One life for another?

I question whether that is a justice that gives peace? If our response is to require someone to suffer in our stead it doesn’t stop our pain or make us feel any less raw. The more you punish,the more you pursue an impossible criteria for restitution. And so we’ve developed an incredibly sophisticated justice system that provides an agreed standard of societal justice. The British hand over responsibility for justice to those who have spent their lives studying the law and analysing defendants. On our behalf, and speaking for society, these men and women declare what punishment is appropriate and what justice is.

But then we can’t accept that it has atoned for the crime.

Because the issues aren’t just with sentencing, they’re at release too. When granted freedom ex-cons have atoned for their actions in the eyes of the law (and by extension the rest of society). It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re unrepentant, or seek restitution and reconciliation with those they’ve hurt because that’s beyond the remit of a secular justice system. Except that we don’t see it that way. Former prisoners face barriers to engaging with society, which some would say should be expected. But aren’t those barriers only going to perpetuate those destructive behaviours? When Tracey Connelly, her picture widely publicised, leaves prison she will do so into the arms of a society ready to exact vengeance on her son’s behalf.

Even though justice will have been served.

Not justice in terms of what some would demand but on that day she will have done what the state demands to provide restitution to the population of Britain.

If on that day she requires a new identity it will be because the papers who first bemoan her sentence and then her false identity are the same people who give credibility to a position that says ‘the justice system is broken, it doesn’t go far enough and she needs to suffer for what she did’.

Fundamentally, British society believes that there’s something people have to do to make themselves right with us; some standard of acceptability to achieve; or some punishment that resolves the past in order to change the future.

I don’t believe that.

I found Sierra Leone an incredibly challenging experience for a variety of reasons but fortunately we don’t have to visit West Africa to see life changing behaviour in action. Gee Verona-Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, forgave her son’s killers. She knew that carrying the pain did nothing. She knows that it is no disrespect to the memory of her son to celebrate his life rather than searching for a potentially non-existent criteria for satisfaction.

As a Christian I fundamentally believe that lives do not have to depend on histories. And I believe that forgiveness, true past-forgetting unconditional forgiveness can heal anything. Impossible? Perhaps. Hard? Certainly. But the things that I believe rotate around that central, crucial, life transforming principle.