It was not, understandably, a pleasant experience, but I left the court with a renewed confidence in the jury system.
It was my first direct experience of trial by jury, despite being eligible for many years and two years earlier being excused for my first call-up due to prior commitments.
In this court, none of us was challenged and the first 12 were empanelled. One member volunteered a reason why they should be excused from this particular trial, by dint of strong feelings about child abuse, but after discussion with the judge, the member returned to the jury box.
Our first task once confined in the jury room was the selection of a foreman to speak on ourbehalf. One man, doubtless an opinion leader in his own cohort, put himself forward, though this, too, was his first encounter with jury duty. Later he was to regret his bravado when, at the end, he had to rise to his feet, face the defendant and the court, and tremulously deliver our verdict.
The trial proceeded along established avenues. The charges were read, the plea sought (not guilty), the prosecution outlined its case and the defence its strategy. The judge counselled and directed and warned of seeking information on the case from sources outside the courtroom. The witnesses were called, the children telling their stories on video, cautiously questioned by police.
On the morning of the final day we had the barristers’ summaries and the direction of the judge, especially how to deal with the testimonies of the children, and the evaluation of «tendency evidence», a relative new concept in jurisprudence.
Then we 12 strangers, on first name terms only, retired to our windowless room.
We put the whiteboards to good use: lists leading to guilty and not guilty. Coalitions of ideas formed and dissolved. We did not vote. We listed and relisted. We did not vote. We sought advice from the judge on a point of law.
We ate lunch. We did not vote and ran out of whiteboard. We needed a rest, a breath of fresh air, and were marshalled into a crocodile of 12 with court officials fore and aft, to march to a nearby park with stern warnings to speak to no one but each another.
We returned to the jury room. We refilled the whiteboards. We voted. Not unanimous. The standouts discussed their reasons. We reviewed the whiteboards. We voted. We found the defendant guilty.
When a jury has heard the evidence and decides on a verdict, it owns that verdict on behalf of the community. That is the strength of trial by jury. It is not infallible, evidence may have been incomplete, directions and advice misunderstood, but that is rare.
It was a strenuous last day but we agreed on a unanimous verdict. We agreed on the verdict on behalf of our communities and that is why trial by jury is so important.
In a trial by judge alone, the legal system owns the verdict. Community ownership of verdicts, especially in cases like Pell’s, is vital and that is why trial by judge alone is not good enough. Such cases must be decided by jury so the whole community, like it or not, owns the outcome.
The author remains anonymous for legal reasons.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.