Thursday 21 February 2013

The Jury Is Out

The failure of the jury at Southwark to come to a decision in the case of Vicky Price is causing some comment around the media.  What is interesting is what is not being said.  Also, interesting in terms of the composition of the jury is who wasn’t there or available for service.

For some time now the business of getting a jury together has become more complicated.  One reason is that so many people who might serve manage to avoid the job.  For anyone in a demanding job taking unpredictable time out can be costly in many ways.

The impression is that those who do serve are those unable to get out of it or for whom it is a better way of spending the time.  These are not the best motives for doing anything let alone sitting in judgement on your fellow men or women.

The quirkiness and unpredictability of juries down the ages is well known, as it their proneness to be impressed less by the evidence or the law than the personalities and the drama involved in the whole business.

The question of whether Hawley Harvey Crippen was innocent or not is a case that continues to rumble on.  It was a major media event at the time and the key to his conviction was the evidence of the later Sir, Bernard Spilsbury (see Wikipedia). 

This pathologist and forensic expert came to dominate many cases down the years and he had a formidable reputation.  This is now increasingly questioned.  In the Crippen case for example it is argued that the remains found in the property were not those of his wife, if female and may even have been male.

But if you were up as a defendant and against Spilsbury you were in deep trouble however good your advocates were.  Because of his reputation, certainty of manner and personal charisma, juries were inclined to believe whatever he said.  If defending counsel questioned his methodology it was almost heresy.

There have been many cases down the years where we now seriously doubt the verdicts, some in cases where the accused hanged.  Again, there were times when the defending counsel questioned police or associated expert evidence. 

This again was a form of heresy and too many judges took both expert and police evidence entirely on trust. In more recent decades it is notorious how difficult it has become to secure a conviction against major celebrities who errors of conduct are palpable but seen by a number of jurors to be acceptable despite evidence and the law.

The recent BBC shambles over Savile and the alleged long history of offences is cited as an example of how certain famous people can avoid action or charges because there is serious doubt whether a jury would convict such a prominent personality.

We do not know what happened in the jury room in the Pryce case.  But there is a basic problem and it has been for a long time, in that if there are jurors with fixed beliefs about human conduct then these will take priority over any ideas about what are facts, what is reasonable and what is evidence.

What astonishes me is that modern technology is now so well advanced that if a trial takes place that is inconclusive it is not difficult to have full transcripts of the trial available quickly.  In that case you may not need a second full court trial.

What might be done is to summon a new jury and let them have all the documentation plus basic guidance in terms of the summing up etc.  Also to hand might be independent advice on any questions arising.

An alternative might be to have such a procedure, but with a group of expert assessors to see if they can arrive at a decision consistent with the evidence.  Again this would be quicker and if properly conducted could serve to arrive at a quick answer and at far less cost.


  1. "We do not know what happened in the jury room in the Pryce case."

    We don't and I'm sure that's a problem. Juries probably rely heavily on the judge's summing up, so I wonder if they were confused to begin with.

  2. The judge was wrong to criticise the jury. Indeed had I been a member of the jury I would have lodged a complaint about him.
    The jury asked questions which at least one member wanted answered. The questions were properly formulated-so at least one member had the nous to do so.
    The judge replied to those and told the jury to have the courage to say if they could not reach a decision. It did so.
    What is wrong with any of that? In other words the system worked perfectly.
    No decision was reached-but so what? Sometimes it isn't-again an indication that the system works.
    The jury system should be left alone-any introduction of "experts" will lead to abolition of trial by jury.