June 26, 2011

Jury Duty

Tags: Memories

Over 10 years ago I did jury duty in Australia. While researching the legalities of writing about my experience, 90% of the pages returned from a Google search were about how to avoid jury duty. I can understand the sentiment. Dodging it was my first thought upon receiving the letter announcing my random selection. However, work was slow and my employer was ok with me being away for a week, so I decided not to fight the summons.

I turned up at the District Court in the Perth CBD on the allotted day. The couple of hundred jury candidates for that week were corralled together and given a talk on our responsibilities and how the system worked (just the standard stuff like there are 12 jurors on a case and not to talk to anyone about your case). We were then told to wait until our name was called and we left in groups of around 30 or so. There was not much talking or socialising - it didn’t seem that most people were happy to be there. I was called into the third group to depart. We went into a courtroom and told the case was an assault and who the main participants would be (so we could excuse ourselves if we knew any of them). Then potential jurors were called to the stand, but about half were rejected by the lawyers before they got there. No questions or reasons were given for the rejections. The lawyers didn’t event look at the jurors, they were head down in paper - presumably our details. My name wasn’t called by the time twelve jurors were chosen, so I and the remainder were led out of the court and back to the waiting room. I was called into another group after a short wait, this was for a sexual assault where most of the people involved had the same surname. I was called but rejected and quite happy about it. After another short wait I was called to a drug case, selected and not rejected. I was a juror.

It was supposed to be a 3 day case, but we started late on the first day and finished early on the last day. Also, we (the jury) spent probably a third of the time out of the court as the lawyers argued points of law. The basics of the case were that the police were looking for a lost cat. While searching they looked through the window of a house and saw what looked like hydroponic equipment - it was also the house the cat was in. They called in a special squad, entered the house (let the cat out) and found the remains of a large marijuana cultivation operation. While no actual cannabis was present, there were the remains of hundreds of plants. All this was recorded on film, including the arrival of the defendant who asked what was happening at his house. The defendant gave a tour of the house on tape and talked (somewhat reticently, but without being overly pressured) about how he grew drugs there, albeit with little detail beyond describing what we could see.

The procecution case rested heavily on his video confession. They then showed proof that the defendant actually owned the house, followed by evidence that it was a drug factory producing commercial quantities of cannabis. Finally, they said that even though no drugs were found, the law allowed that all the used equipment was good enough for conviction on the current drug cultivation charges. The defendant claimed personal use for a wasting illness, though there was no mention of why he needed so much. Then we had to decide. There was no overacting or histrionics like in TV or the movies. Most of the time neither lawyer looked at us - then were looking down at the notes the entire time, even when questioning witnesses. Both lawyers were just doing their job. The only time the process seemed to deviate from the banal, judging from the lawyers slightly increased excitement level, is when they would ask for us to be removed from the room. Or, maybe that was just me being intrigued by what I was missing.

I don’t remember the details about any of my fellow jurors. They were a bunch of average people, no one really stood out as unreasonable. When we got in the room we first did an anonymous vote - about eight or nine of us (including me) voted guilty. After the vote we talked and it seemed no one was particularly keen to convict, but some people looked harder than others for a reason not to. At first the question was whether growing marijuana should be a crime at all. The scale of the operation won that argument fairly quickly. No one believed the personal use story. However, if there was only a couple of plants I think he would have been found innocent as the majority of us backed this view. Next there was the argument he was a patsy. Conspiracy theories abounded. I had some sympathy with these - the case wasn’t quite right and the constant requests for us to leave the room had made us all feel we were missing something. The defendant did not come across as a smart or rich man, yet had a second house full of drugs. There must have been other people involved. Also where did all the drugs go? The operation was supposedly shutdown a few days or few weeks before the police found it. Some people even thought the cat story was a bit fishy and the police were in on the whole thing.

In the end the video won all arguments. The tape had no edits as far as we could tell, and showed the defendant from the time he first encountered the police. After some identification, warnings about getting a lawyer then without any more coercion than a few strongly put questions, he completely confessed. We watched it a couple of times, then the holdouts agreed to convict. There may have been a group of people involved, but the defendant was definitely one of them. The decision took a couple of hours. When we presented our verdict to the court the judge thanked us and said that the result was completely in keeping with the evidence presented to us. So what was the evidence not presented to us? We were led out of the court building immediately and didn’t see the sentencing.

I never saw or spoke to any of the other jury members again. I checked the papers for a few days afterwards to see what happened, but couldn’t find anything that seemed like my case. My main memory of the experience was boredom. We spent most of the three days waiting. The case itself was interesting, but the lawyers belaboured their points. I assume they wanted to be certain we understood what they were saying. The whole thing could have been done in a couple of hours if succinctness was prioritised. Still, if that was a stereotypical jury experience I wouldn’t have an issue doing it again.

The moral of the story is: never admit guilt on camera!