Miles Kington: Believe me, jury service is nothing like 'Twelve Angry Men'

I never did get to harangue 11 men and women because they were about to sendan innocent man to the gallows

(10 November 1999) I heard on the radio yesterday that Mr Jeff McWhinney, president of the British Deaf Association, is furious at being barred from jury service on the grounds that he is profoundly deaf. He says that, given a skilled British Sign Language interpreter, there should be no problem. To which I say, anyone who demands to do jury service, instead of running a mile from it, needs his head examining.

Like all sane people, I don't base my feelings about jury service on statistics, surveys or figures – I base it on my own wide personal experience of jury duty, which lasted for a fortnight at Isleworth in 1987, during which I discovered that being on a jury was nothing like being Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men.

For one thing, Henry Fonda didn't have to bicycle every day from Notting Hill. For another thing, I never did get to harangue 11 men and women because they were about to send an innocent man to the gallows; only suffer a fortnight of sitting about as 11 men and women said: "Well, one of them's lying all right. But is it the copper or the lad?"

No, I tell a lie. I also learnt something about being the foreman of a jury. It is well known that if you want to avoid being voted jury foreman you don't wear a tie and look posh. So I had left my tie behind. Indeed, when I was ushered into my first jury room I did quite a naff thing and went to the jury loo while everyone else was sitting down.

When I got back, a juryman said to me: "By the way, you're the foreman."

"Hold on, hold on!" I said, somewhat shocked. "We've got to take a vote on that first."

"We already have," he said. "We did it while you were having a slash."

"But why me?"

"You seem the type," he said. "You're the only one of us not wearing a tie. That shows a man who's not afraid to be different and speak out."

It struck me that he, already, was showing more powers of leadership than I was, but it was too late and we were off into our first case, all about an assault on a Frenchman working in England. All I can remember about it now was that at one point counsel asked him if his injuries had had long-term effects on his work, and he gave one of those expressive French shrugs that mean, "Eh bien, comme ci, comme ça", and the judge intervened sharply, saying: "I'm sorry – you can't do that!"

"Do what?" said the Frenchman.

"You can't shrug as an answer. It may be all very well in France, but it won't do in an English court. We have a stenographer here taking down the proceedings. She can't write down a shrug, can she? You must say something."

So that's it. Don't shrug. Don't go to the loo too early. That's it.

No, I tell a lie. There was one other moment to remember. It came in a case of attempted murder. The victim was questioned about being attacked with a hammer "by the man in the dock".

"What did the assailant say to you?", was the question.

"He said, 'I'm going to kill you, or words to that effect," said the witness.

"Just a moment," intervened the judge, a middle-aged, sweet-looking lady. "Were those his exact words?"

"No, not quite."

"Then let us have the exact words."

"I'm not sure I could say them in a court like this."

"Why not?"

"Because they're not very nice."

"Listen to me," said the judge, taking off her glasses and fixing him. "I have just one thing to say to you. Outside this court I like nice language as much as anyone. If someone sitting next to me at a dinner party said 'fuck', I should probably faint clean away. But in court it's different. We aren't shocked by anything. Here in court, it's 'fuck, fuck, fuck' the whole time. Got that?"

"Yes," replied the witness, very faintly.

"Right. Now, what did he say?"

"He said, 'I'm fucking going to fucking kill you.'"

"That's better," said the judge and put her glasses back on.

We, the jury, could scarce restrain ourselves from a round of applause. She was magnificent. For that alone, I treasure my fortnight of jury duty. But I can't help thinking that it's a moment that might have lost its full dramatic effect while it was being translated into British Sign Language.