Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Guest Blog from A.A. Abbott


AA Abbott is a crime thriller writer, author of The Bride’s Trail and other “racy and pacy” fiction. Read a fuller account of her jury service at http://aaabbott.co.uk/2015/10/whats-it-like-to-sit-on-a-jury-im-about-to-find-out/

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Have you ever wondered what Jury service is really like? Well A. A. Abbott is here to tell you all about it



WHAT JURY SERVICE IS REALLY LIKE…


This is a true story that never made the news – it wasn’t deemed important enough. Yet, in merely thirty seconds, a handful of young lives changed for the worse. How do I know? I sat on the jury that heard the case. Read on and find out more…

It starts for me when I get the letter telling me I’ve been selected for jury service. Although a crime thriller writer, I dip in and out of the world of big business too, taking contract work for a few months every year. I’m just finishing one contract and have had a meeting to pitch for another. It’s a busy time of year for my prospective employers, and I imagine they’ll look for someone else to fill the contract role. Luckily, it seems they don’t have a problem as long as I’m only away for the average duration of two weeks.

On my first morning, I turn up at the Crown Court, joining the hundred or so souls sitting in the jury lounge. Half of us are new boys and girls like me. The old hands are laughing and chatting with each other, making drinks in the spacious kitchen.  We newbies sit in silence, typing on smartphones or reading newspapers. Phones, tablets and laptops can be used everywhere except in the courtroom itself. The wifi is not free, however. Complaints about this are posted in a comments box.

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(Picture from The Times)

We’re given a welcome talk. This is an important civic duty. If selected to try a case, we must only talk about the case when the entire jury is present; otherwise we cannot even talk amongst ourselves, and definitely not with anyone else. We must not speak of it on social media. We must not research it online. Then we see a DVD, where a blonde woman so carefully made up she could be animatronic tells us the same things. She shows us the layout of a court. She explains that the court usher, clerk, judge and barristers wear black robes. The judge and barristers wear wigs too.

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(Picture The Guardian)

We’re told the computer will pick batches of sixteen to go to each court, then the clerk will pick twelve to stay there. Each selection is random.

That’s how I end up sitting with eleven strangers on the jury benches, to one side of the court. There’s a ledge in front for paper and pens. We may keep the notes for the duration of the trial but they are then to be destroyed.

The judge has a youthful face beneath his grey wig and the barristers seem a similar age, but the three defendants are younger still. Barely in their twenties, Jake Goodman, George Drummond and Lloyd Wick look hopefully from the dock, knowing their fate lies in our hands. Each is represented by his own barrister. The prosecution barrister is supported throughout by the policeman who investigated the case, DC Hampson. The jury is asked if we know any of them, and also various witnesses whose names are given to us. We don’t, so we’re all eligible to serve.

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The clerk calls us to our seats, one by one. I had expected objections from the advocates - the defendants are all black or mixed race, while the jury is solidly white – but there are none.
Mr Goodman, Mr Drummond and Mr Wick sit silently, side by side in the dock, bookended by two security guards. They seem engaged right at the start, then slip into glassy-eyed boredom.

Before the court may begin to hear the case, all the jurors must take an oath. This is passed around on a sheet of paper, along with the bible. We swear before Almighty God that we will try the case fairly. Jurors may simply affirm they will do this without any mention of a higher power if they’re not religious. One of our number stumbles over the words, possibly through dyslexia.

We are given a written list of the charges against the defendants. They are accused of drugs and violent offences. The prosecution barrister then outlines the case. Four young men were offered drugs outside a popular bar. When they declined to buy any, they were followed into the bar and allegedly beaten up by the defendants.


The prosecution counsel, Mr Bastow, is put in charge of a DVD player. It takes him a long time to get the hang of it and he’s ribbed by the other legal professionals. Joking aside, the method of address is very formal. The judge is addressed as your honour and referred to as his honour. The barristers are Mr this and Miss that, and my learned friend. The defendants are addressed, and referred to, as Mr Goodman etc.

The first piece of evidence is blurry CCTV footage showing a group storming into the bar and starting a fight. It’s just about possible to tell the attackers and victims are male, but the quality is too poor to identify anyone. The brawl itself is over in thirty seconds.

Our CCTV show finishes in time for a lunch break. We always have at least an hour, sometimes more. The court allows us the princely sum of £5.71 for a meal. This can be reclaimed without a receipt, so many jurors bring sandwiches. In a small way, this helps to make up the difference between the miserly lost earnings allowances and the amount we might actually have made at work.
After lunch, Bastow wheels out a couple of witnesses. We end up hearing from all four victims, which takes up the rest of the first day and most of the second.

Three of the victims remember very little. They’d been drunk and concussed; their injuries were serious enough to warrant stitches and staples.

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“I vaguely recall an argument. The next thing I knew, I woke up amongst blood, police and paramedics,” one says.

The Crown’s star witness is the fourth member of the group, Dan Hart. He was pulled away from the fight and is confident he observed all of the defendants there, picking them out in an identification parade several months later.  Gloves are now off as far as the defence counsel are concerned. Before, they’ve been meek as lambs with no questions for Hart’s friends; now they’re wolves going for Hart’s jugular.

Mr Smith represents Jake Goodman, who is supposed to have offered Hart cocaine. “You say he had a distinctive mark on his face,” he tells Hart. “Mr Goodman has no such mark.”

Jake Goodman’s unblemished face beams from the dock.

Miss Shah represents George Drummond. She starts by talking like a schoolmistress, saying she assumes Dan Hart has never given evidence in a court before. He agrees he has not. She says, well it is a serious matter, and again he agrees.

Her focus is to prove his memory is wrong. Did he really only have four pints, as he said, she muses. He would have been over the limit to drive.

Hart is composed. “We began early and I drank over the course of eight hours,” he points out, adding, “But no, I wouldn’t have driven.”

She is hectoring now. “But if you had six pints, your concentration would be impaired. You can’t be certain you identified the attackers correctly.”

“It was only four or five,” he says, “and my memory is clear.” All of the attackers had leaped off the page to him in the ID parade, he tells her.

“But that was months later. I put it to you that you cannot be sure.”

On the contrary, he says, “I am sure.”

Miss Barry, for Lloyd Wick, is similarly snarly. Her lip curls. She forces him to admit a minor memory lapse, then presses her advantage home. “What else are you mistaken about? How can you be certain you saw the defendants that night? I put it to you that your identification could be incorrect.”

The jury retires for a late, but extended lunch break, as there will be more legal discussions. Stepping outside in the sunshine, I see George Drummond walking towards me. We don’t make eye contact or smile. He looks somehow distant, possibly bored but more likely stressed. Mostly, the defendants are looking down while in the dock, so I guess they’re playing video games.

Once we return to court, we’re not there for long.

“We are now going to see agreed statements,” the judge tells us. “They’re statements in writing of evidence on which everyone has agreed. They’ll be typed up tonight, so come back tomorrow morning for 10.30am.”

The next day, having rushed through court security (our bags are checked and we’re frisked every time we enter the building), I discover the trial’s starting even later. Jurors for other courts are shepherded away. It’s nearly twelve when it’s announced that we’re on. I close down my laptop and both my mobile phones as we walk to the courtroom.

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Today’s proceedings start with agreed facts, the written statements on which both prosecution and defence agree. Dramatically, Jake Goodman admits to being with the attackers in the bar. It is acknowledged that he and George Drummond are friends. All three defendants have been convicted of multiple violent offences, although in Drummond’s case, the convictions are several years old.
Once Bastow has read all the agreed facts out, it’s lunchtime again.

For a change, we manage to start the afternoon on time. It’s just as well, as more drama unfolds. The next witness to take the stand is DC Hampson, a middle-aged man with a cynical expression. He is the first to swear on the bible when called to the witness box. The others have merely affirmed they will not lie. He tells us more about identity parades, which now take place in video rooms. The witnesses are shown photos of the suspects within batches of images drawn from a huge computer database. The computer deliberately seeks out similar faces to that of the suspect, and the suspect’s legal advisers vet the images and may object to them before they’re shown to witnesses. The process is known as VIPER: Video Identification Parade Electronic Recording.

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“We no longer drag members of the public off the streets,” the judge smirks.

All three defence counsel cross-examine Hampson. Smith has little to say, but Misses Shah and Barry have plenty. Miss Shah points out that George Drummond has an alibi for the night. He was with his friends Bradford Dean and Nathan Judd all evening. Hampson had their names and phone numbers two weeks before the trial. Why didn’t he phone them, she wants to know?

Hampson admits it would be normal procedure, and he can’t recall why he didn’t do it.

Hampson is the last prosecution witness, and now the defendants may have their say. Messrs Goodman and Wick decline to do so, but Drummond is keen to speak. He affirms that he will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

George Drummond is tall and broad-shouldered. The men seen on CCTV appear slimmer, and I wonder at the identification evidence.

Miss Shah is now the soul of gentleness as she sympathetically draws out his story. His previous offences took place when he was a boy. He was in care and found it hard to settle; he simply lashed out.

“I know that doesn’t excuse my behaviour,” Drummond says. “But I’m a different person now. I’ve turned my life round.” After a period of homelessness, he’s secured a college place and somewhere to live.

Miss Shah asks him about the alibi. Drummond had been through his social media messages and realised he’d made arrangements to see Bradford and Nathan that night. We are given screenshots.
“Can you translate for us?” Miss Shah asks.

Drummond grins while Goodman and Wick fall about laughing. Patiently, Drummond talks her through the messages. He asserts that he spent the evening with his friends and stayed overnight with them.

Now it’s time for Bastow to cross-examine and he lets rip. “You have a temper don’t you, Mr Drummond?”

“No more than anyone else,” Drummond says. “I know I did wrong when I was younger. I was under pressure then, in care or homeless. I’m a different person now.”

“You lose it when you don’t get your own way.”

“I don’t do that now,” Drummond repeats.

Bastow is deeply suspicious that the alibis were so late in being forthcoming. He says it took Drummond a long time to persuade his friends to lie to him. Why weren’t they mentioned before?
Drummond says his solicitor advised him to say nothing in police interviews.

“Mr Goodman is your friend too, is he not?” Bastow asks.

Drummond says yes, but not like Dean and Nathan.

“Not someone who would lie for you?” Bastow suggests.

“No.” Poor Drummond is damned however he answers that question.

“And Mr Wick? Do you know him?”

“I know OF him,” Drummond says. “I mean, he’s a friend of a friend. But I don’t know him.”
Bastow asks if Drummond has spoken with his alibi witnesses. He claims he hasn’t, saying they were both busy and Bradford had no phone. The judge points out that Drummond has provided a phone number for Bradford. Drummond says it didn’t work when he tried to ring it.

At 4.30pm, with Bastow still raring to go for Drummond’s throat, the judge calls a halt.
When the court resumes on the fourth morning, Bastow begins by quizzing Drummond about Bradford Dean’s mobile phone He’s trying to goad Drummond into either losing his temper or admitting he has one. Drummond remains calm.

Bastow eventually gives up. “I have no further questions,” he says.

Then Bradford Dean, Drummond’s childhood friend, takes the stand. He’s a credible witness, of good character, who robustly denies Bastow’s suggestion that he’s lying. The problem is, that although he knows he made arrangements to see Drummond that evening, he has no proof that they actually met. When Bastow asks what he did every other day that week, he can’t remember. The mystery of his mobile phone is solved, though. Under Miss Shah’s examination, it turns out that it stopped working a month ago but Dean didn’t tell anyone.

There are no more witnesses, so Bastow sums up the prosecution’s case. He says Goodman and Wick must have something to hide, because they haven’t taken the stand. Drummond on the other hand is confident, and therefore must be the confident leader of the attackers. All three are violent, says Bastow. We should not doubt Hart’s evidence because he correctly identified Goodman, who admitted he was there. It’s no coincidence that the other two men Hart identified, Drummond and Wick, also have a history of violence and know each other and Goodman. “Fancy that,” Bastow says drily.

We spend the rest of the day hearing from the defence counsel. Smith, who has asked very few questions of the witnesses, gives the jury plenty of eye contact as he tells them they need to be sure to convict Goodman. And they can’t be. Goodman doesn’t have any distinguishing marks on his face, so couldn’t have been the man who tried to sell drugs.

Image result for drugs

Smith is adamant that if we watch the CCTV footage, we won’t see Goodman hitting anyone. “He was a peacemaker. Watch the DVD again,” Smith urges. Alas, when we do, we see Jake Goodman in the middle of the brawl.

Miss Shah is worthy of an Oscar, looking wide-eyed at the jury. She starts by quoting Little Women on important words. She tells us we’ve heard the most important words all along from Drummond: ”I was not there.” The CCTV images could be any one of hundreds of men in the city with a similar physical appearance. Dan Hart hardly saw him and could be wrong. Drummond’s offences took place many years ago, a long time for a young man of his age. We must take this seriously as we have the power to affect the course of his life. She hopes we’ll react to his courage and consistency and acquit him. It has been a privilege to know him, she says.

Miss Barry acknowledges her client is an unpleasant man, but says he wasn’t there, he didn’t do it, Dan Hart was too drunk and had too little time to identify him and the CCTV certainly doesn’t.
It remains for the judge to sum up, and that takes us into Day Five. He explains the law on joint enterprise. If two or more people act together with the same purpose, it doesn’t matter who did what – they are all jointly guilty of the crimes committed as a result. The actions can be planned or can happen on the spur of the moment. It is the joint enterprise doctrine that means Goodman, Drummond and Wick are each charged with violent attacks.

We may take silence in court into account, although Wick and Goodman are perfectly entitled to decline to take the stand, effectively saying to the prosecution, “You prove my guilt.” The burden of proof at all times rests with the prosecution. He reminds us that Drummond had elected to give his account in court and has been cross-examined at length, as has his witness, Bradford Dean.

He is dismissive of Drummond’s alibi, saying we are entitled to wonder why it was not forthcoming earlier. DC Hampson should not be criticised for failing to contact the alibi witnesses at such a late stage. Even if we decide Drummond’s alibi is false, however, we should be aware that individuals falsify alibis for a number of reasons. For example, they may have been somewhere else that they wouldn’t want anyone to know about. If we choose to ignore the alibi, we must still convict Drummond only if the prosecution has proved his guilt otherwise.

Although Lloyd Wick answered police questions, he did not give an alibi. He just said he wasn’t there.  “That is not an alibi,” the judge says. “It is an assertion.”

The CCTV evidence is of insufficient quality to identify anyone by itself, but it may be used to support Daniel Hart’s identifications. We may similarly use it to exclude suspects, bearing in mind its poor quality, the judge says.

The jury now retires to the jury room, where we will stay until we can reach a unanimous verdict on all charges.

The law does not allow me to say anything about the jury’s discussions, but suffice to say that we reach unanimous verdicts. We agree that Drummond is innocent, whilst Goodman and Wick are guilty of violence only, not of offering to sell drugs.

As soon as we are seated on the benches again, the judge directs the defendants to stand. He then asks the foreman of the jury to stand too. Our elected foreman rises to his feet.

“Have you reached verdicts on all counts put before you?” The judge asks.

“We have,” he replies.

“And are you all agreed on them?”

“We are.”

The clerk to the court reads out each charge in turn. One by one, our foreman gives the verdict.
“Thank you,” the judge says. He looks at the dock. “Mr Drummond, you are free to go.”

Young Drummond looks stunned. He does not smile. For a second, he glances sympathetically at another defendant – not his friend, Goodman, but his acquaintance, Wick.  I suppose Goodman’s case was dead in the water as soon as he admitted he was in the bar that night. Then Drummond walks from the dock a free man, clutching a large plastic carrier bag. “Thank you,” he says gravely to the judge and jury.

That evening, I stroll through the city, looking at the Friday night revellers with a lump in my throat. I give thanks to God that I have my life and my liberty.

But all that is several hours away. Right now, Smith anxiously asks the judge to sentence Goodman quickly, as he has been on remand for a long time. The judge agrees speed is desirable, and offers a slot next week.

That puts Miss Barry under pressure, as the judge wants to sentence Goodman and Wick together, and she needs to get pre-sentencing reports for Wick. “I’m not sure I can do it in time,” she says.
He gives her short shrift, but at least allows Wick to walk free on bail, as his record is nothing like as serious as Goodman’s. The hapless Goodman is returned to prison. “And now, members of the jury, let me thank you,” he says. “It’s not easy to make those kind of decisions. Between you and me, and this is just a personal view, even if you discounted Mr Drummond’s alibi, your decision to acquit him was correct based on the evidence presented to you.”

So we head out into the sunshine. I walk away from the drama of the week, past the bar where several young men had that fateful argument, back to my beautiful quiet life.

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