'Isolated' Juror X finds feet in court

The jury system is at the foundation of New Zealand's legal system, but unless you have served on a jury, the experience is something of a mystery. Mark Price spoke to "Juror X", who was involved in a long-running criminal trial.

Two jurors had been chosen by the time Juror X's moment arrived.

From the public gallery, he had watched as more than 25 fellow members of the public had trooped towards the 12 empty seats of the jury box.

Some, before they were able to sit, were challenged by the lawyers - deemed unsuitable for reasons that would never be revealed - and allowed to go home.

Others asked for a quiet word with the judge and were excused.

"Eventually, my name got called and I sort of walked into the jury box expecting someone to say: 'Challenge'. And they didn't." Surprised, Juror X sat down in a "not too comfortable" chair, noted the computer screen in front of him, and surveyed the court room from a perspective few get to experience.

He also noticed a sense of isolation creep over the jury.

"It's sort of remote for everyone. It was very detached, I think."

Of all the instructions directed to the jury by the judge, before the trial began, the need to keep "an open mind" is the one that lingered longest for Juror X.

"It wasn't hard to do at all ... Really a jury just makes a decision on what they actually hear."

To the casual eye, Juror X and his colleagues might have appeared to be no more than passive observers of a courtroom drama.

But, within 20 minutes of being sworn in, the jury was dealing with its own mini drama. The 10 strangers, and two who knew each other, needed to make their first decision.

Who should be their "foreperson"?

The Ministry of Justice "Information for jurors" handbook with which they had each been issued suggested it could be either a woman or a man and they could be referred to as madam foreman, mister foreman or madam forewoman.

Beyond that advice, the handbook left the jury to its own devices.

"There are no rules on how you choose this person - it's entirely up to you," Juror X said.

The jurors had, suddenly, to conduct an election without the benefit of any information about who might be best qualified to chair the jury's discussions in "a fair and balanced way". Juror X was not impressed by the process, or the outcome.

"Perhaps the less said about that the better," he said.

Of the 12 jurors, five volunteered for the job, " ... but there was one person who was certainly so keen to be [foreperson] he virtually talked himself into it.

"And my experience of that type of thing is that these are the people who can't handle it."

Asked if his misgivings about the foreperson were borne out during the trial, Juror X said: "Yes . . . It got a bit fractional at times."

The jurors voted for their foreperson with a show of hands. Juror X considered a secret ballot would have made voting more fair and discreet.

"He [the foreman] obviously wanted to do it ... but there were two women on that jury who would have been far more qualified.

"They both volunteered but, then, it sort of went to a vote and everyone voted him in. So that was it. I voted against him but that is the way it goes. You've got to have a foreman."

The foreperson must be chosen before the trial begins, unless the court directs otherwise.

Although aware of the need to keep an open mind, Juror X soon had a very clear idea which way the case was heading: ". . . [the accused] actually admitted that it did happen.

"We virtually knew, of course, what the result would be.

"But we still had to take into account all the facts. I think we all sort of knew but we didn't mention it among ourselves, of course.

"Even his own defence sort of admitted ... it was quite clear cut. Yes it was."

As the weeks went by, Juror X adjusted to a routine of time in the jury box interspersed with regular breaks, debate around the jury table, and an endless supply of tea, coffee and biscuits.

Smokers were allowed into a courtyard outside and at lunchtime the jurors went their separate ways, with instructions not to talk about the case.

"I did have an experience where I ran into someone in the supermarket and I was asked, quite boldly, whether I was on the jury.

"And, of course, I just had to walk away because some people are more discreet than others."

Two of Juror X's colleagues had known each other before the trial but he did not notice any cliques forming among the group of seven women and five men.

One woman filled many pages of a notebook, although Juror X could not recall if anyone ever referred to them - the jury supplied, as it was, with copious amounts of information on paper and computer screen.

"It was remarkably easy ... it doesn't require a lot [of] thought. It's just a matter of listening ... for anything that's good for the defence or might come up later on."

He found the complexities of the case quite easy to follow.

"Oh, absolutely. Yes it was very well presented. It's actually quite easy to be on a jury, I think, because of the way they present all the evidence. It's not rocket science so much. All you could really do is just try and keep awake and take it all in and that's what you are basing your decision on."

After the closing addresses for the Crown and the defence, and the judge's summing up, the jury settled in to consider its verdict.

Within a short time, nine of the 12 were agreed on a verdict but three wanted to keep discussing the evidence.

"I wouldn't say they hadn't made up their mind. They just wanted more discussion on it. People have got a right to question things."

Eventually, after a break, two of the jurors joined the majority, coming to the conclusion "that that was all they could do".

Then, only one juror stood in the way of a unanimous verdict.

"I don't know what his thinking was. He was quite a young person. Maybe it was sympathy."

But the latter stages of the discussion brought home to Juror X the shortcomings of the jury's foreperson.

"He should have actually been more of a foreman. He was actually quite a good juror but he could drift off and not take control of things in the room.

" ... . sometimes it did get a bit fractional but never mind. It didn't come to blows or anything like that."

And, eventually, the jury returned to the courtroom to deliver its unanimous verdict.

Despite the trials of the jury room, Juror X is convinced the system works and he would be happy to serve again although having once served, he is now exempt from jury service for a while.

The jury box

A juror . . .
• Is selected at random from the electoral rolls.
• Can be fined up to $300 for failing to obey the summons.
• Will only be excused if there is good reason, such as hardship, personal beliefs, child care responsibilities, or if they have served on a jury within the past two years.
• Must have a good understanding of English.
• May sit on more than one trial during the course of a week. Other potential jurors may not be selected at all.
• Must listen carefully to the evidence and reach a verdict based on that evidence.
• Is responsible to the community to ensure that justice is done.
• Cannot be a member of Parliament, working in the justice system, been sentenced to prison, or have some permanent physical infirmity which would affect their ability to serve.
• Is paid $31 for each half day in court.


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