Twelve Angry Men

They have outlawed the Truth!

With whistleblowers tackling the mighty US government, I could easily have something to say about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden[1].  But I don’t think I really have much to add to what’s already being widely said.  Glad the latter has escaped from airport limbo: whatever his eventual fate, the Russian authorities had to do something, and I don’t envy them the choice!  A year should provide the opportunity to arrange travel to one of the Latin American countries that’s offered asylum, if the Russians allow it or turn a blind eye.  I expect he was interviewed by Russian agents: wonder what deal they may have reached?

What motivates me to post now is a couple of lower-profile cases where people have been locked up for a lot less.  No whistleblowing, just in one case expressing an opinion, and in another googling some information.  All the mainstream media (e.g. BBC) have reported this week that two jurors have been locked up for not Playing the Game according to strict Club Rules.  One juror expressed a (probably prejudiced) opinion on Facebook of a defendant, while another did a bit of research to inform himself.[2]

Is there no such thing as a prejudiced juror?  Are courtroom stories and dramas such as Rumpole always talking nonsense when they describe them?  Hardly seems likely: one might just as well ask if there’s no such thing as a human juror!  No, the first juror’s crime wasn’t his prejudice, it was the fact he expressed it in a medium that can’t reliably be hushed up.  He blew the court’s cosy game of make-believe, and went to prison for it.  His simple truth – like thousands of others, MUST remain ritually unspoken.

As for the other juror, that story is even more disturbing.  If you believe in a naïve concept of justice – the sort of thing where you get found guilty if you committed a crime and innocent if you didn’t – how could you not want to inform yourself?  Yet that’s outlawed: you are required on pain of imprisonment to limit yourself to what you can make of a story spun to you by (ideally) two career liars and control freaks, who may or may not have made the effort to inform themselves.

Have you stopped beating your wife?  Yes or No?
The barrister has years of practice; the average honest witness has little or no defence and comes across as evasive or even dishonest.

How many jurors out there are wracked with guilt for years – even a lifetime – after being suckered into reaching a verdict that, as soon as the courtroom story fades and the real world re-enters their minds, they know or suspect to be profoundly wrong?  I can see it in anyone with the kind of borderline-obsessive personality of a typical geek who gives attention to detail.  Or those with a strong enough social conscience to let it affect their lives.  Indeed, I wonder if you have to be a full-blown sociopath to do jury service without at least some risk of lasting damage to your psychological wellbeing?  That second juror should’ve taken his lead from my little rant.

[1] Anyone else feel the merest hint of Schadenfreude when the US Govt denies the description “whistleblowers”?  I guess it’s easy to think a whistleblower is a person who reveals someone else’s guilty secrets, not ones own.
[2] This is general comment on issues raised by the headlines, not on the particular cases about which I know no more than is reported in the linked story.

Posted on August 2, 2013, in politics, rants, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I did jury service once (as referred to in niq’s old post). It was a witness-tampering case. All concerned (victim/witness and defendants) came from one of the less salubrious parts of the city. None were attractive characters. All were white males.

    The alleged “tampering” had involved the defendants verbally threatening the witness (who was the victim of an earlier assault by the defendants to which they had pleaded guilty already) when they happened to bump into him on a day trip to the seaside whilst awaiting trial for the assault. The alleged threat was frankly quite mild and totally unconvincing. To my mind this was hardly witness tampering, just the sort of yobbish behaviour that some folks get up to, especially when angry and cornered. I totally disapprove of this sort of behaviour, but it hardly merits a court hearing let alone a potential jail term. Nevertheless it came to court.

    The prima donnas (sorry, barristers) representing both sides (at taxpayers’ expense) came out with all the usual hackneyed cliches. It was like a badly-acted school play. Nevertheless ten of the twelve jurors were in no doubt of the defendants’ guilt because they looked like bad sorts (which, quite frankly, they were). Two jurors (self, and one male student from the local university) were not convinced that any real offence had been committed, and held up the jury deliberations for hours arguing that, on the basis of what we had heard, these guys were indeed foul-mouthed yobs but had hardly tampered with the witness. Clearly the judge was impatient too – it was obvious he was used to compliant and unthinking juries. We asked for clarification of several legal points and were still not convinced, so we were made to feel small and stupid for daring to ask.

    In the end, we fell into line with the rest and agreed on a guilty verdict because, quite frankly, we were sick of the whole process and wanted to go home! One could argue that we were browbeaten and bullied into submission by the other jurors aided and abetted by the judge. Perhaps those were eleven individuals who should have been charged with jury-tampering?

    Given that the defendants were thoroughly unpleasant individuals, neither of us “troublemakers” really cared what happened to them, which is just as well – at least I’m not wracked with guilt at the fact that these guys got a fairly short custodial sentence. However one could hardly say that truth or justice had been served.

    I don’t know the solution, but I think part of the problem lies in the rather medieval adversarial approach which tends to make the search for truth descend into a murky morass of distortions, half-truths and fairy tales.

    Oh, and if you are self-employed and get called up for jury service, heaven help you. The rates of compensation are pathetic and take no meaningful account of lost contracts, income etc. But that’s a rant for another day…

  2. John, I guess the small scale of your case (and indeed most others) makes it unlikely to trouble you too much. But the fact the defendants were unlovable is precisely the sort of thing that shouldn’t influence you, according to the theory. What if it had been a rape or murder charge? The original Twelve Angry Men involved a defendant who would’ve faced the electric chair if found guilty!

    I’ve heard another juror (who shall remain nameless) summarise with “they were obviously guilty as hell, but we acquitted” (the case was a pub brawl).

    Here’s another memorable take.

  3. The character of the defendants didn’t influence my decision. Indeed, had I been so influenced I would have been more than happy to join the bandwagon with the rest straight away and wouldn’t have bothered to be such a pain in the butt. What forced my decision was the relentless pressure from the other jurors together with the judge who, rather than addressing our concerns, conveyed the impression that I and my fellow dissenter were just time-wasting pedants. Had the charges and consequences been more drastic I hope I would have had the stamina to hold out, which would have led to a retrial. However in this instance I knew the defendants were guilty of the related and (to my mind) more serious offence of assault. Furthermore, whilst I was not sure of the defendants’ guilt to this specific charge, I certainly wasn’t convinced of their innocence either. I just felt I didn’t have enough objective information to make an informed decision. So on balance their fate didn’t trouble me whether they were found guilty or not.

    I can only say that I don’t think anyone can appreciate how awful the experience of jury service is for someone with a conscience and an open mind until they’ve been compelled to do it. The original Twelve Angry Men is a good play but it’s fiction. Reality can be much grubbier and far from clear cut.

  4. In the first juror’s case – making bolshie comments on Facebook – I have no sympathy. You can argue that the rules are stupid, but his reason for breaking them was far stupider – he just wanted to gloat.

    The second is more sympathetic, and goes to the assumptions of the trial system. In brief: it’s assumed that the two barristers will put together the best possible case for and against the defendant, with the most reliable information available – “reliable” because it’s tested and confirmed right there in court – and that’s what the jury will decide on. To allow a juror to inject information from another source “contaminates” the whole process.

    I think that assumption might have made perfect sense, as recently as 10 years ago, when it took significant work to find out anything about most anyone. It’s easy to forget how quickly that situation has changed, and really not surprising that the law has not yet even begun to think about keeping up with it.

    In justice to the system, it really is unfair for a juror to inject information, directly into the jury room, that hasn’t been through this testing/proving process that the court maintains. Thinking about it, there may well be a theoretical mechanism for a juror to raise that sort of information in the courtroom, where it can be added to the record, challenged and defended properly – but it’s probably considered such an unlikely contingency that no-one bothers telling the jurors how to do it.

  5. The first juror was being an arse, yes. But to lock him up for it? Surely that should only happen if it crosses a line to persistent and serious harassment or threats!

    As for doing ones own research … Rumpole was doing it a lot more than 10 years ago. Indeed, his cases are really detective stories. A juror with ideas of ‘justice’ and a bit of civic pride in might consider it a duty to do a bit of homework, especially in a big case.

  6. The first juror publicly declared an intention to pervert the course of justice. I think he got off lightly.

    And Rumpole was a lawyer, not a juror – it was his job to do that research, so that he could present the best possible case for his client. He was a good lawyer precisely because he took that responsibility seriously, unlike many of his colleagues.

    But he had to put real legwork into it. He didn’t just sit at home and Google people, he went out and knocked on doors and talked to them. In those days, the amount of work it took to do any serious investigating was, basically, prohibitive unless either (a) you were being paid for your time, or (b) your interest in the subject was bordering on obsessive.

  7. I think you’ve kind-of made my point.

    The first juror … expressed a prejudiced view. The whole jury system is predicated on coopting random people. Random people have random prejudices, some of which will affect their judgement. All this one did that was different was to give voice to a prejudice that should have remained unspoken.

    And Rumpole was a lawyer, not a juror – it was his job … Nonsense! A barrister takes a brief from a solicitor. His job is to present it, not to investigate it. Every time Rumpole got on a train to go and sniff around a crime scene or background information he was going so far outside his job description as to stretch credibility. But of course it’s essential to the stories! The point of mentioning Rumpole was to demonstrate that the idea of someone moonlighting an unpaid investigator’s job is not exactly novel.

    Furthermore, a juror’s involvement in a trial is a one-off. So a bit of moonlighting has novelty interest, as well as serving non-cynical notions of justice.

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