On being a juror
Earlier this year, a letter landed on my doormat. I could see through the envelope window that it was red writing on pink paper. It was my summons to be a juror.
I know a lot of people who have been jurors, I know of several people who have done it more than once, and I know of a few older people who have never done it, but really want to!
I've never particularly wanted to do jury service, but I've never particularly not wanted to do it either. It was more of a frustration that it wasn't at an ideal time. But when would be? So I sent off all my paperwork and waited for day one to come around.
This post is going to be vague on details for obvious reasons - hopefully I can show how I felt about being a juror and the overall experience, whilst protecting what needs to be protected.
It was odd walking into the Jurors' Room on that first day. Having gone through security, shown my ID and been crossed off a list, I was now in a room with lots of strangers. There were seats all the way round the edge of the room, a table in the middle, a pile of old magazines and a few 500-piece jigsaw puzzles. People looked up and smiled hello when others walked in, but no one really said anything.
The member of staff responsible for looking after the jurors came in and showed us a DVD. It went through who is who in a court, who sits where, what the responsibilities of the jurors are. It also warned us there would be a lot of waiting. It was definitely not wrong about that! Those 500 piece jigsaw puzzles weren't there by mistake!
After the DVD (does it show my age that I type 'video' automatically?) we sat for a bit more. A few people were playing on phones, a few people were reading, a few people were just twiddling their thumbs. We were then called into court, after being told about eight times to turn off our phones. Were they off? Yes. Please turn off your phones! Yes. Check your phones are off. YES!
In the courtroom, the jury was selected. There were more than 12 of us to begin with (can't remember how many) and from our list of names, 12 were selected. My name was called, and when we were called we had to go and file into the jury box. The defence barrister then gave some information about the location of the arrest and a few names: if we knew the location or any of the names we had to say, so we could be replaced with someone who didn't have prior knowledge (this is why there are more than 12 people are called for jury service at a time). Eventually, we had 12 people in the jury, the rest of the potential jurors were dismissed, and the case began.
Because jury service lasts up to two weeks, you're likely to sit on more than one trial. My name was called again to sit on the jury for the second trial. When we walked into court we could see the evidence bags on the table, and from the number present, we knew this would be much longer.
Court is a slow process. Nothing can be done quickly as it has to be done properly - and of course, this is the way it should be. It takes much longer because the right people have to be in the right place at the same time. The jurors needed to see a piece of paper, but there was a problem with the photocopier (or something like that) so the jury had to be dismissed whilst this was dealt with, and there's lots of please-sit-down-please-stand-up-please-sit-down as people go in and out. We had a lot of 10 minute breaks. I managed to read three books during the two working weeks I was a juror. I even made a start on one of the jigsaws, and was not impressed the following morning when I realised the cleaners had dismantled it overnight! As I said, that DVD was not wrong when it said there would be a lot of waiting!
I know bad things happen in the world, I watch the news, I have friends who are police officers, bad things have happened to people I know. I am intelligent and I am not naive. But it is very different when you are being led through every single piece of evidence and intelligence relating to the crime. Quite rightly, the prosecution and defence barristers have to make sure the jurors fully understand the evidence and arguments and so often information is repeated and explained in different ways, to ensure it is understood by everyone. So occasionally when we were looking at a specific piece of evidence that was quite emotive (evidence could be a photo, a written document, a transcript of text messages, CCTV footage, a physical object etc.) it was hard to have to look at it again, and again, thinking about the crime and what had happened.
The jury was an excellent cross-section of society, I thought. Whilst I didn't get to know the other jurors very well (much beyond 'did you have a good evening last night?' 'I'm going to buy some lunch, anyone want anything from the shop?') it was clear we were from different backgrounds, different jobs, different ages, different genders.
You do have your hand held, metaphorically, throughout the trial. Everything is explained in full, terminology is explained, explanations are explained. Everything that is expected of you as a jury is explained. There should be absolutely no room for doubt, and 'doubt' and 'reasonable doubt' are also fully explained (in a legal sense as Person A's 'reasonable doubt' is not necessarily the same as Person B's).
It takes a lot of concentration to be on a jury. The prosecution barrister goes first, which is the first time you hear (and see) all the evidence. There are things to look at, things to hear, names and locations and dates. Jurors are given paper and pen and I wrote lots of notes - I wanted to remember how I felt, did I think a certain thing was compelling, what did the defendant say at a certain point?
The court room is designed so everyone can see everyone else. From where I sat in the jury box, I could clearly see the defendant. I can see their face now. The defendant could see me. The defendant knew who I was. Indeed, one morning I arrived at court, and the defendant was smoking outside. All perfectly permissible, as the defendant was just (at that point) a free person smoking on the street, but as I walked past the defendant looked up (as you do when someone walks past) and we each knew who the other person was. I was never scared or intimidated, I just knew that we both knew I had the power to determine their fate for the next few years. Whilst the court building has a separate entrance for jurors, there are only so many ways you can access the court building, so chances are different people are going to meet before they reach the court building and the separate entrances.
Often we would be dismissed for 'ten minutes'. Often these 'ten minute' breaks would be ten minutes. Other times they would be 30 or 45, sometimes they rolled into lunch and sometimes we were dismissed early (all these things are, apparently, common and to be expected).
After the prosecution, the defence barrister has their turn. The evidence is gone through again, and it really makes you think. Obviously that's the idea, the prosecution does an excellent job of arguing the defendant is guilty, the defence then does an excellent job of arguing the defendant is innocent. It's up to the jury to decide.
Because this trial lasted a few days, there was lots of time to think about what I'd heard and seen, especially in the evenings. I've learned things I can't un-learn, and it definitely made me think. At the end of each day, the jurors would go back to the Jurors' Room to get our belongings - you're not allowed to talk about the trial at this point, as we were 'in public', but you can't help looking at each other and trying to gauge how others feel.
When the prosecution and defence barristers had done their bit, they summed up their arguments and the judge then summed up the whole thing. We were told very carefully what 'beyond reasonable doubt' means and then we were taken into the deliberation room where we had to surrender our (turned off!) phones.
It was a room shut off from the court, with a separate toilet, and a long table with 12 chairs. There we deliberated.
It is this part I would love to write about, but can't, as what happens in the jury deliberation room is known only to those who were there - which is the point of having a jury. We were there to do a job, and do a job we did, and I found it fascinating - 12 relative strangers in a room deciding another stranger's fate. If only you could do research on a jury and the deliberation process!
The judge told us to take all the time we needed - there was never any pressure to make a decision quickly. Which is right, we had to be sure that we were making the right decision. If we had a question we had to write it on a piece of paper, press a buzzer, a member of staff would come and get it (they weren't allowed to speak with us) and we would then be taken back into the court to hear the judge's response to our question.
The judge had asked for a unanimous decision, and the defendant was found unanimously guilty. As we filed back into court, I didn't know where to look. Everyone (the prosecution, the defence, the judge, the police officers, the defendant, the friends/family in the public gallery) was looking at us - they knew we'd made a decision, we knew we'd made a decision. I will always believe that the defendant was guilty of that crime beyond reasonable doubt and I believe that a prison sentence was the punishment they deserved, but even so, I couldn't help feeling a bit emotional about it. In the end, I just made sure I always looked at whichever member of the court happened to be speaking.
The verdict was announced, the jurors were thanked for their time, and we were dismissed. We had the option of waiting for the sentence to be announced, and so we went back to the Jurors' Room to wait to be called back into court (this time we would be sitting at the back, and not in the jury box). We didn't wait long, and the defendant was given a prison sentence.
Afterwards, we were all dismissed. We left the court in a group, and then went our separate ways. I've not stayed in touch with anyone and I doubt I'll ever see any of them again.
Overall, I'm pleased I've had the opportunity to be a juror. If my name is randomly selected in the next two years I can refuse to do it, but after that I can't - I may never be called again, or I might be. I've learned a lot about the judicial system in this country and I've seen first-hand how a jury reaches a decision. Yes, it was inconvenient and yes, a lot of time was spent just waiting, but it is definitely a life experience. I'm just pleased the jury reached a unanimous verdict - I cannot imagine being in the minority on a jury and feeling that the defendant has received the wrong verdict.
So if you ever receive a jury summons letter, don't dread it - you will learn a lot about other people (good and bad) in a situation that can never be truly replicated.
Just don't forget to take a book.