Leading Article: Juries can be fallible, too

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The Independent Online
NOT FOR a long time has a jury acquittal aroused such indignation. Given the apparent facts of the case, the reaction is not surprising. A teenager is observed slashing tyres in a street. A local resident, a normally peaceable music teacher, goes off to confront him, carrying a large hammer. When they come face to face, the teenager, allegedly under the influence of alcohol and drugs and convinced he is about to be attacked, produces a knife which ends up, fatally, in the heart of the music teacher. The jury accepts the youth's statement that he acted in self-defence. After the trial it emerges that he had a long criminal record involving arson, burglary and theft. Result: widespread disgust and calls for a right of appeal against 'perverse' jury verdicts. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, calls for a report 'to see if there are any lessons we can learn from it'.

The most obvious one is that juries will not infrequently deliver verdicts that onlookers and, sometimes, most participants consider to be 'perverse': research shows that a significant number of acquittals, and rather fewer convictions, come into this category. On rare occasions, notably when murder or manslaughter is involved, those apparent misjudgments will arouse great public indignation.

This demonstrates not that the system is inherently flawed, but merely that it is fallible. It is the least bad system that we have discovered, but it is not perfect because it is subject to the fallibility of humans required to apply subtle legal concepts to events susceptible to different interpretations. In this case, the jury had to assess whether the defendant was 'acting reasonably in necessary self-defence', as the judge concerned, Mr Justice Kay, put it in his admirably fair and unloaded guidance to the jury.

Since a jury's deliberations are not disclosed, it can safely be said only that this jury evidently was convinced that the defendant did just that. The contrast between the characters of the two parties involved - the good family man and the one-man crime wave - lies at the heart of public reaction to the verdict. But to the jury it should have been, and apparently was, irrelevant. Only the judge knew the defendant's previous record.

It is ironic that a jury verdict should come under attack just a week after the right to trial by jury had been widely and robustly defended. The threat came from, of all unexpected sources, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. Its report recommended that for offences triable either in Crown or magistrates' courts, defendants should lose the right to insist on trial by jury. The commission also considered whether an appeal should be allowed when jury verdicts fly in the face of the facts or the law. They rightly concluded that no such change was warranted.

The present case is also a reminder of the frustrations that can result from the secrecy of jurors' deliberations and the unreasoned nature of their verdict. Yet it is hard to see how confidentiality could be removed without making them feel exposed; or how they could explain their verdicts without staining the character of witnesses ('frankly, we thought the chief prosecution witness was lying . . . '). From this sad case, the only safe conclusion is that vigilantism is dangerous, and that it is never worth risking one's life in defence of mere property.