Take it from me, never trust a jury without shirt and tie

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
Heartiest congratulations to our Editrix (!!) on this newspaper's solidly pro-British stance in the Louise Woodward case. How dare the Americans, whose system of justice is in its merest infancy, lecture the British on whether or not an English girl is innocent!

And what a wretched system of justice they choose to operate! Deeply flawed is the system that weighs all the available evidence - and then finds an English girl guilty. Twelve men and women (!) - all American, incidentally - sit around a court-room, some without jacket and tie, most requiring a decent application of spit-and-polish to their footwear, listening to evidence far too complicated for any of them to comprehend. Even the Judge himself speaks with a distinctive American accent. The jury then nip off to a hotel, no doubt equipped with all variety of "minibar", "air-conditioning" and "duvet" (dread word!), for a tedious session of ill-advised discussion - only to return with a verdict that flies in the face of everything the leading British commentators have told them!

I did not watch the case myself. It could only interfere with my understanding of the broader picture. I do not deny that America has given much to the world. Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh: these are not to be sniffed at. The average American possesses a natural flair and exuberance, a love of life combined with a big-hearted approach to his fellow man and a ready smile. This is why one avoids him at all costs. But when one hears an American voice in the courtroom ("Hi! Geewhizz! Yankee Doodle Dandy! Sure is swell!") one knows the writing is on the wall.

I wonder if an American juror is really intellectually and emotionally equipped to judge a case such as this. With half-forgotten tunes by Mr Frank Sinatra whistling around his head combined with dreams of a lunchtime "Hot Dog" and Ice Cream Soda, the poor fellow will have little time left to spare for the nuts and bolts of British justice.

May I reminisce a while? When I sat on a jury back in the mid-Sixties and then again in the late Seventies, I developed four tried-and-tested rules ascertaining the guilt or otherwise of the defendant. Rule One: Look at his eyes. Men with light blue eyes are invariably guilty, as are women with green. Rule Two: a tell-tale sign: the guilty inevitably fall into the trap of protesting their innocence. The moment this occurs - you've got him! Rule Three: the guilty man will always give an impression of shiftiness, looking as though he'd rather be anywhere else in the world than appearing before a British judge and a British jury in a British dock, guarded by a British bobby. Rule Four: beware the shuffler, the mumbler and the chewer, particularly if the creature is chewing "gum" - they all have something to hide.

One of my cases involved an Old Etonian of excellent standing, with a beautiful Georgian house, a few thousand acres in Gloucestershire and only a smattering of previous convictions for not-so-very-grievous bodily harm to his name. He stood accused of murdering his wife, to which he had the grace and good manners to have pleaded Guilty. I argued successfully with my colleagues on the jury that they should not be swayed by appearances, and since the poor chap's wife had hardly proved herself the ideal companion, and since she was dead anyway, there was little point in crying over spilt milk.

Another case involved an Irish labourer. The evidence against him seemed overwhelming: he was of no fixed abode, he had drifted from job to job and - a sure sign of guilt - he had been spotted by no witnesses at the scene of the crime. I knew there and then that he was guilty, and vowed with all the powers at my command to have him sent down for 15 years. It was only later that it was pointed out to me that the accused had not yet appeared, and that the man in question was in fact the Foreman of the Jury. Needless to say, I argued that we should never allow the course of true justice to be obstructed by such legal niceties, but my objections were over-ruled; for all I know the Foreman in question is still at large. Swings and roundabouts, roundabouts and swings.

We may occasionally bark up the wrong tree in British courts - who doesn't? From time to time, a mistake will be made and the innocent will be sent away scot-free. But by and large, the system works, and works well. The same cannot be said of America, where juries are too easily swayed by the obvious, the incontrovertible and the self-evident. It takes, I fear, far subtler minds than those with which they have been blessed to stick up for one's instincts and say quietly but firmly, "No, I shall not be swayed by the evidence". But at least this newspaper knows where it stands, and that's the main thing.