Friday book: Judicious verdict on courtroom drama

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS a breathtaking moment in an extraordinary trial. OJ Simpson stood before a world-wide audience solemnly taking the exhibit in his iron fist. The tedious hours broadcast live from court were forgotten in seconds as he put on the glove: "It doesn't fit!"

American lawyers practise their televised appearances. The sessions are choreographed, the moves rehearsed. No longer is the jury their only audience. The case reminded us that in Britain, the theatre of the court remains discrete. Big moments in complex trials are reduced to sound-bites illustrated by pastel sketches. Juries still occupy a hidden world.

Plucked from their daily lives, jurors are thrown in at the deep end of an often fiercely adversarial process with no tutoring and minimal information. All that unites a jury is its chance selection. It is unquestionably intimidating, but remains the cornerstone of our judicial system.

In The Juryman's Tale, Trevor Grove responds to the call of duty; the citizen becomes the juror. Entering the "solid, dignified and slightly ludicrous" physical world of the Old Bailey, his observation of its social scene captures the imagination. The apprehension of first-time jurors is transparent as he describes the ebb and flow of the jury restaurant, counting the distribution of newspapers, making assumptions about age, class and dress codes.

Soon he is immersed in a gripping and unusual case. It lasts 64 days, fusing high drama and deep sadness with low farce and confusion. A Greek shipping magnate has been kidnapped and held to ransom by two compatriots, minded by two Frenchmen who later maintain their right to silence. A seemingly straightforward prosecution: a cruel imprisonment for nine days in a "pitch-dark, windowless room not much larger than a cupboard, reeking of urine".

The case appears cut-and-dried. But the defence argues that the victim was "in" on his own kidnap. They allege that, with massive gambling debts, he stage-managed the event to extort money from his family.

Much hinges on stories of wealth and lifestyle that stagger the jury. Evidence from the victim's family presses home the significance of family solidarity in Greek culture. Then the key defendant sacks his barrister to defend himself.

Grove recounts the whole process with precision, good humour and studied reflection. He was no ordinary juror. He took copious notes, writing up the case each evening.

Some of the best moments are in the passages derived from these notes. One minute is mundane and trivial, the next incisive and engaging. In their breaks the jurors muse over the lottery, the cost of the trial and the sighting of Mike Gatting in the jury restaurant. In the same breath comes a shrewd assessment of the case: the types of kidnap equipment, or the reliability of witnesses.

The jury soon develops its own "code of behaviour", profoundly serious yet swapping jokes. Camaraderie, like the case, becomes part of their lives. Over Christmas, Grove misses his new companions and does "homework" on the jury system. His research instils the text with broader references that contextualise the process.

Following the closing speeches and the summing-up, the expectant reader draws up a chair in the jury room. Alas, Grove must disappoint. Unable to reveal the content of the deliberation, he sends the reader packing. As jury foreman, he is proud to disclose that they rejected a "verdict- driven deliberation". Rather than taking an early vote on guilt, they opted for an "evidence-based deliberation", encouraging open discussion. After four working days and a weekend, the votes were taken one by one: unanimity on all counts. "We sat back in silence, overawed by what had just occurred. Then the tension suddenly ebbed." How well he conveys that tension.

For Trevor Grove, the jury delivered. It is an "admirable idea" which will only continue to work "so long as we have faith in it".

Not so for detractors. Having established the "view from the inside", he seeks out the jury's enemies and sympathisers. Now the professional journalist, he lines up the usual suspects: Devlin, Popplewell, Blom-Cooper, Runciman, Zander, Tumim and so on.

The detractors are severe. Juries are amateurish, ignorant and non-accountable. Judges are professional, reliable and accountable.

Important here is the distinction between judges as summarisers and as decision-makers. Would they become case-hardened? Concerns abound over the distance between judges and those they would judge.

Grove presents a shopping-list for "modest" reform that includes exemptions, voluntary jurors, age qualification, peremptory challenges, juror education and the 13th, or reserve, juror. He also covers note-taking, questions, instructions and legal jargon. Much of this has been discussed before, but the shared experience of a difficult case widens and makes accessible a crucial debate.

The reviewer is director of the Centre for Studies in Crime and Social Justice and author of the forthcoming book `Hillsborough: The Truth'.