Mark Duggan inquest: A perplexing verdict can still be a right one

Jurors based their decision on three months' evidence. The Duggans are entitled to disagree, but not to abuse them

Seven men, three women, from north London, most of them young, most of them white, some mixed race. That's about all we know about the demographic particulars of the Duggan inquest jury. They are not very much more than ciphers.

What we do know a bit more about is the responsibility they bore. And we know something about how they think. The verdict they were asked to deliver was complex, requiring that they address a diverging tree of six weighty questions. But, in the end, their answers were not ambiguous: Mark Duggan did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, but the police officer who fired at him believed, or may have believed, that he did. The killing was, accordingly, not unlawful. It's a strange thing: if you were describing anyone else's answer to that question, you would append the qualification "in their opinion". But because these opinions are those of a jury, they have the practical force of unimpeachable fact.

Juries are troublesome beasts. Even at its very best, it is only the least worst system there is. The most exhaustive recent research, from the Ministry of Justice, tells us that there is no evidence of a tendency to bias, but it adds that in some circumstances as few as 31 per cent of jurors understand legal directions; it says that 26 per cent of those on high-profile cases admit to reading about it online while the trial is in process. There are plenty of anecdotes about jurors who fall short. But what else do we have?

Charged with a duty that they never asked for, and asked to tell the world something in binary terms, that they will surely have understood in shades of grey, the members of this jury seem beyond reproach. Certainly they did not deserve the treatment that they received in the aftermath of their verdict, when members of the Duggan family, and their supporters, screamed abuse across the courtroom as they left. "Fuck them and fuck the world. What are you running for?" shouted Mark Duggan's brother, Marlon, as others held him back. "This is a joke. The fuckers. He didn't have a gun." Duggan's fiancée, Semone Wilson, accused them of being part of a conspiracy.

Clear though it is that the jury deserved no such treatment – that such behaviour, in fact, makes the proper conduct of an inquest considerably harder – it would be equally senseless to condemn the family. Moments before they heard that the killing of their relative had been deemed lawful, they had been told that the jury was sure he did not have a gun in his hand, which must have seemed to be a promising marker for the outcome they craved.

No, it isn't normal for families and friends of a man whose death is at issue in a courtroom to heckle witnesses, or break furniture. But it is also vanishingly rare for such a death to be at the hands of the authorities. Mark Duggan's mother apparently fainted when the verdict was read. How can anyone blame her if she saw the court as part of the same system as the police watchdog that knowingly let the lie that her son had fired at officers stand uncorrected, even as Tottenham burned back in August 2011? How can anyone blame her if she has lost all faith?

Dead men's families are rarely the most measured judges of how their killers should be treated. It would be inhuman if they were. Those in public life, though, bear a greater responsibility to accept the system's output if they accepted the terms by which it was set up. You can't suddenly decide it's fatally flawed once it goes against you.

Diane Abbott MP tweeted, shortly after the verdict was announced: "If the Duggan jury believe that he did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, how can they find it was a lawful killing?" She also said that she was "baffled". Challenged on those remarks later, she explained: "I am not second guessing the jury today, but I was taken aback. But that's different from saying I am in some way trying to challenge the jury." Well, if you say so, Diane.

Likewise Lee Jasper, who was race and policing adviser to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London. He accused the police of murder, and added: "It is now open season on black men."

Criticisms of the verdict are the most obvious assaults on the jury's legitimacy. But excessively approving paeans to the jurors' wisdom are also complicated. Really, the verdict has to occupy a sort of intellectual limbo, with neither criticism nor praise hauling it into a destabilising factional battle. But more than a few supporters of the police have spoken of their relief at the news of "the correct" verdict. What would they have said if things went the other way?

The acid test of fairness on these things is simple: have your opinions on what happened undergone any significant challenge? You may have been right all along, of course, but it is unlikely that you were right on every detail. But even if your view remains rigidly the same as on the day the inquest began, it's unlikely you can match the jury for expertise.

Your view of all this comes down, in the end, to your definition of "respect". "With all due respect": we all know how misleading that phrase can be. And, in this context too, it is to some people useful merely as a precursor to a ringing critique. Those who understand the phrase this way, I assume, see their "respect" as meaning that they are not taking practical steps to undermine the consequences of the decision. But it has to mean more than this, surely: it has to mean taking care to do nothing that could incite others to the same error. It's equally important, on the other hand, to see that you can respect a verdict and yet also know that juries are fallible, that it is no act of sedition to ask careful, moderate questions.

There is, in fact, plenty of room in the middle. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, found it when he acknowledged that he saw parts of the verdict as perplexing, but added a careful description of the enormous care that the jury had taken. I have questions, too. But every one of them comes, as they should for most of us, with the qualification "based on my limited expertise on the case". That is, based on the media reports I have read; also based, in part, on the understanding I had before the inquest began; and coming with the certain knowledge that, whatever else, I did not hear three months of evidence and will never have to live with the knowledge that my opinion will ultimately be upheld with the force of the law.

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