The judge in the trial of Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of the disgraced former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, lamented the jury’s “fundamental deficits of understanding” as they were discharged for failing to reach a verdict.
Mr Justice Sweeney said he had never in his 30-year legal career come across a situation where jurors expressed bafflement about such key issues of a case so late in a trial. Ms Pryce now faces a re-trial next week.
The eight men and four women had asked the judge 10 “very basic” questions about the case – and then on the fourth day of deliberation said that they were unable to decide if the economist was guilty or innocent of perverting the course of justice.
The questions included: “Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or the defence?”
A second question read: “Can you define what is reasonable doubt?”
The judge told the jurors that “a reasonable doubt is a doubt which is reasonable. These are ordinary English words that the law doesn’t allow me to help you with beyond reasonable written directions.”
Huhne had pleaded guilty on 4 February to the charge of passing his penalty points for speeding to his then wife to avoid a driving ban, and resigned his seat as an MP. He was told by the charge that “you should have no illusions whatsoever as to the sort of sentence that you are likely to receive”.
Ms Pryce, 60, accepted that she took the points but denied the charge, claiming she only did so because she was bullied into it.
The planned new trial is just the latest twist in a long-running saga that dates back to May 2003, when Huhne’s car was caught by a speed camera on the M11 as the then-MEP returned home from Strasbourg.
The judge had been asked by prosecutors on Tuesday whether or not it was safe to continue with the trial after receiving the questions from the jury.
Mr Justice Sweeney said that the questions demonstrated “absolutely fundamental deficits of understanding” after hours of deliberations.
He added: “After well over 30 years of criminal trials, I have never come across this at this stage.”
On the third day of their deliberations, the jury had sent 10 questions as they grappled with the case.
The QC for the prosecution, Andrew Edis, questioned whether the case could continue. “I don’t ever recollect getting to this stage in any trial – even for more complicated trials than this – and after two days of retirement a list of questions of this very basic kind illustrating at least some jurors don’t appear to have grasped it,” he said.
The judge ruled that the trial would continue and then spent an hour answering their questions, which included “Can we speculate about the events at the time Ms Pryce signed the form or what was in her mind at that time?” – the answer was no – and “Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows” – where the judge pointed out that religion had not been a factor in the prosecution or defence.
Mr Justice Sweeney insisted: “I must direct you firmly to focus on the real issues in this case and thereby to reach a true verdict according to the evidence.”
After hearing the answers, the jury returned less than two hours later and said it was “highly unlikely” they would be able to agree a verdict.
Ms Pryce told the court that she signed the forms nominating herself as the driver after coming under intense pressure from Huhne, who was concerned about the damage to his reputation during his campaign for the nomination to a winnable Westminster seat.
The allegation about the speeding points only became public in 2011 after Ms Pryce spent months talking with the press in an attempt to “nail” Huhne after he left her for a younger woman in 2010, the court heard.
She told the jury she wanted to expose his true character to the public after he rose to a Cabinet position.
Ms Pryce claimed that she only took the points after being ground down by her husband, who told her that she would be responsible if he did not win the seat for Eastleigh after two failed election attempts in other seats.
The judge said Ms Pryce’s claim that she was coerced into signing the police forms was the “critical issue” in the case and gave the jury two “ultimate questions” to consider, to decide her guilt or her innocence.
Huhne will be sentenced at a later date.
Question time: What the jury asked the judge
These are the 10 questions asked by the jury in the Vicky Pryce trial before they failed to come to a verdict. The answers of Mr Justice Sweeney have been edited:
Jury: Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or the defence?
Mr Justice Sweeney: The answer to that question is firmly no. That is because it would be completely contrary to the directions I have given.
J: Can we speculate about the events at the time Ms Pryce signed the form or what was in her mind at that time?
MJS: The answer to that is an equally firm no… There is a difference between speculation, which is not permitted, and inference. Inference is drawing common sense conclusions of which you are sure from facts on which you are also sure.
J: If there is debatable evidence supporting the prosecution’s case, can inferences be drawn to arrive at a verdict? If so, inferences/speculation on the full evidence or only where you have directed us to do so (eg circumstantial evidence, lies, failure by Ms Pryce to mention facts to the police).
MJS: The drawing of inference is a permissible process; speculation is not.
J: Can we infer anything from the fact that the defence didn’t bring witnesses from the time of the events such as au pair, neighbours?
MJS: You must not infer anything from the absence of witnesses.
J: Does the defendant have an obligation to present a defence?
MJS: It’s for the prosecution to prove the case… There’s no burden on the defence to prove anything.
J: Can you define what is reasonable doubt?
MJS: A reasonable doubt is a doubt which is reasonable. These are ordinary English words that the law doesn’t allow me to help you with beyond reasonable written directions.
J: You have defined the defence of marital coercion at page five and also explained what does not fall within the definition by way of examples. Please expand on the definition (specifically “will was overborne”) Provide examples of what may fall within the defence and does this defence require violence and physical threats?
MJS: The law recognises, via the defence of marital coercion, that a wife is morally blameless if she committed an offence only because her husband was present and coerced her, that is, put pressure on her to commit the offence in such a way that her will was overborne – that she was impelled to commit the offence because she truly believed she had no real choice but to do so… The words are relatively straightforward English words which the law doesn’t permit me to go beyond further.
J: Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice, ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt that she had to obey?
MJS: This is not, with respect, a question about this case at all. Ms Pryce doesn’t say that any such reasoning formed any part of her decision to do what she did. And the answer to this question will therefore not help you. I must direct you firmly to focus on the real issues in this case and thereby to reach a true verdict according to the evidence.
J: The jury is considering the facts provided but have continued to ask the questions raised by the police. Given the case has come to court without answers to the police’s questions, please advise on which facts in the bundle the jury shall consider to determine a not guilty or guilty verdict.
MJS: You decide the case on the evidence. It’s for you to review all of the evidence and decide which of it you consider to be important, truthful and reliable, and then decide what conclusions – commonsense conclusions – you can safely draw. It’s not part of my function, because I’m the judge of the law (not, as you are, the judges of the facts), to tell you which piece or pieces of evidence are important and which are not.
J: In the scenario where the defendant may be guilty but there is not enough evidence provided by the prosecution at the material time of when she signed the notice of intended prosecution (between 3rd and 7th May 2003) to feel sure beyond reasonable doubt, what should the verdict be – not guilty or unable/unsafe to provide a verdict?
MJS: If having carefully considered all the evidence at least 10 of you felt sure of the guilt of the defendant, then it would be your duty to return a verdict of guilty. On the other hand, if after such careful consideration at least 10 of you were left feeling less than sure of the guilt of the defendant, it would be your duty to return a verdict of not guilty.