Sunday 22 July 2018

My experience on a rape trial jury: 'Sometimes doing the right thing doesn't feel like the right thing to do'

Stock photo
Stock photo

Anonymous

DESPITE the many hours I invested in shows like Ally McBeal and The Good Wife, when I found myself sitting in a jury box as a newly appointed foreperson, I couldn't have been less prepared for the reality of jury service on a difficult case.

A short time ago, I found myself part of a jury for a rape and sexual assault case comprising of multiple charges.

To give the judge credit, we were offered the chance to excuse ourselves if we felt that we could not serve due to the subject matter of the case, but this never seemed like a viable option to me - serving on a jury is a civic duty, and I believed that I would be able to handle what the case might throw at me. In my mind, by serving, I would make sure that someone who perhaps felt less able might not have to.

There's a lot of explaining when you're part of a jury - you're warned about discussing the case outside the courtroom, about doing your own research, particularly about social media use.

You're even warned about discussing the case among yourselves before all the evidence has been given and the case has concluded, because you're not supposed to try and draw conclusions with only parts of the information.

Arguably the most important thing that was explained was how reasonable doubt and the burden of proof works, and how that would affect our view of everything to come.

You see, when it comes to criminal trials, the balance of probabilities is not good enough. It's not good enough to think that if scenario A seems more likely than scenario B, that you can return in favour of scenario A.

No, when it comes to criminal law, these cases must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, which means that if a lawyer can introduce some reasonable doubt, you are instructed to afford the benefit of this doubt to the accused. This is how, sometimes, you can end up feeling like you are obliged to vote for not guilty, even if you personally feel like the defendant is actually guilty.

Of everything that we had to take in and learn in that first day, this was perhaps the hardest to grapple with - innocent is not the opposite of guilty in the context of the courtroom. If, during the course of your trial, a barrister manages to introduce some reasonable doubt somewhere in the narrative, this might not mean that a defendant is innocent, but it will mean that "beyond reasonable doubt" can't be fulfilled. This does not mean, however, that an alleged victim is lying. This doesn't mean that you don't believe the alleged victim.

Unfortunately, I had to be excused right before deliberations in this trial for personal reasons. I did find out the result though, in the media, some months later - the jury couldn't reach a verdict. I sometimes wonder how that might have been different if I had been in the room.

I often think to myself about my feelings during that case, particularly when court cases are getting a lot of news coverage. About how I felt quite sure that the defendant had done the things he was accused of, but that I knew I would have had to return "not guilty" for at least one of the charges because of reasonable doubt. I didn't think he was innocent then. I still don't think he was innocent now. That's why not guilty doesn't always mean innocent. That's why "beyond reasonable doubt" means that women sometimes go through all this, and end up without a conviction, but can still be telling the truth.

Being on a jury for a rape trial, I saw first hand how difficult it was for the victim to recount her experiences. It was difficult to hear, difficult to watch some pieces of video evidence, etc. But I was aware that my discomfort was nothing to what she experienced. I watched her break down on the stand. I watched the emotion pour out of her. I watched her hide her face as we were shown videos and photos. With everything that we saw and heard, with everything that this man showed us about his character, I can't believe that she would have taken this action frivolously. The defendant seemed controlling, abusive, manipulative. He lied, deleted texts, isolated her. I firmly believe he did these things. But that tricky "reasonable doubt" provision means that it's not really about what I felt or believed, it's about the evidence and the case.

Sometimes, when you are on a jury, doing the thing right doesn't feel very much like the right thing to do. Those few weeks were an incredibly difficult time, a lesson in attempting to separate my feelings and my obligation as a member of the jury to fulfil my duty properly, to do as I was directed and solely consider the evidence. In all of my hours of careful study in front of my TV, I had never really considered what it would be like to try and view things completely dispassionately, to set aside my personal feelings and impressions of a person and try, really try, to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is, I can assure you, harder than they make it seem.

*The author of this piece remains anonymous for legal reasons

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