>Twelve Not Very Angry People


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sitting on a jury, an interesting but ultimately rather draining experience. The jury system is being as one of the few well established channels for mass participation in the British legal and political system, and a hallowed and traditional one at that. So it makes for an odd experience to roll up at a government building one morning as a member of the public and get the the usual friendly and slightly causal British bureaucratic processing, but not actually be in the usual passive role of service user, patient or customer, but as also to be someone integral to making a real decision.

The first stage sitting – the Jury Assembly area – has the feel of a hospital waiting room or the departure lounge in some small provincial airport, although unlike these situation no one is in any particular hurry to be called. When you and the rest of a fifteen person jury panel do get
called you then suddenly find yourself standing awkwardly in what seems to be television set: a courtroom, which seems oddly small, but otherwise straight out of Rumpole, Judge John Deed with judge, lawyers, clerks and prisoner all sitting in costume and read to go at the press of a button.

And without further ado (small matter of jurors swearing an oath to return a true verdict – in about half the cases, including mine this means affirming minus the bible) the trial kicks off with the prosecution’s opening statement. The sense of unreality gradually lifts, although it is
for the most part a little like looking in a play. You watch, you listen, you make notes, the court rises and you can go home or go downstairs and buy coffee and teacakes from the staff-and-jurors counter of little stall staffed by retired volunteers (proceeds go to charity – this week an
animal sanctuary).

For anyone who likes social science methodology, there is a lot get into the trail process: evidence, inference, causation and argument. Indeed, what academic could fail to admire – and enjoy anticipating – the barristers’ unfolding arguments, ultra-polished presentation skills and
carefully planted sound bites? There is an emerging human story. Over the several days of the trail witnesses take the stand and names or blank faces in the dock and public gallery slowly emerge into compelling cast of dramatis personae.

Then there is the bit everyone has not been looking forward to: deliberation. The defence case closes and we are sequestered in a Jury Retiring Room and have to reach a verdict. We are not allowed out, but can make tea and coffee and knock on the door for the jury baliff to bring
more milk. Friends who had done jury service warned me that this was the worse bit: “Be prepared to meet some very thick people”. But, in fact, I didn’t. Most of my fellow jurors were well educated and with, one possible exception, anything but thick. So the atmosphere was more Twelve Very Reasonable People than Twelve Angry Men. This didn’t make it any easier to
reach a verdict. I realised that, unlike in the movies, even a simply chain simple events involving a small number of people may never yield up all its secrets. In the end though, we did agree a verdict which seemed to fairly reflected the evidence – and thinking back over the complexities,
possibilities of the case I still think it does.

The local paper reported the end of the trial and our verdict the next day, rehashing the more sensational bits of the evidence and soap opera elements of the case.

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