Thursday, February 4, 2010

Order in the courtroom

After my last post regarding the problems with society, I thought I would expand upon the time I did jury service.

Jury service, readers, is one of the great civic responsibilities that we have in this country. More than a responsibility, it’s actually a privilege. Because not in every country are the citizens actively encouraged to sit in judgement on their fellow man and condemn him to punishment. Not everyone’s so lucky.

Obviously in some countries the citizenry are given more operational freedom than us Brits, and they stone transgressors to death in public arenas. Personally I prefer the gravitas and civility of a courtroom, but far be it from me to naysay the cultural quirks of people from other lands. After all, it’s these little differences that make the world such a fascinating place, isn’t it?

In most areas of our life, of course, we are taught that it is wrong to judge others. That’s one of the problems I’ve got with the Police. I often wonder how many police officers have exceeded the 70mph speed limit on motorways while in their private vehicles. I would argue there isn’t a one who hasn’t done it. And from a purely philosophical point of view any that had done so ought not be able to arrest anyone else. If something’s a crime, it’s a crime. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s the sort of petty shoplifting that gives Richard Madeley his kicks, or the sustained and invasive sexual molestation of a nun. You’re either guilty or innocent. At least, this is a point of view espoused by Dave the Roofer, one he formed while living in the North West where he founded the region’s leading philosophical group, the Bolton Wonderers.

So I just don’t understand people who try and wriggle out of Jury Service. I mean, who wouldn’t want two weeks off work sitting in a courtroom, effectively in control of the life of somebody they’ve never met and will probably never meet again (especially if they go to prison and, let’s face it, they wouldn’t be there in the first place if they hadn’t done something wrong somewhere along the line)? It’s a bit like playing Sims, but for real. What a thrill!

But when I did jury service, at London’s wonderful Old Bailey, there were actually some people who were trying to get out of it. One Rasta bloke said to the judge that he couldn’t do it because he had to sign on for his benefits every few days, so he was turned loose. And two of the women on my jury whinged constantly about having to be there instead of sat at home with their feet up watching bloody Trisha!

Me? I actually let out a whoop when the letter came through. A fortnight’s holiday, effectively, with something interesting to do while you’re off work. What’s more, the boss has to swallow it – it’s the law. So I counted myself lucky.

I counted myself even luckier when I saw that the case was a gruesome attempted murder! An absolute corker! I mean obviously it would have been better if it was an actual murder, rather than just an attempted one, because then we’d have been dealing with a killer. But attempted murder has to be the next best thing. I guess in this day and age you might think child abuse would be more exciting for the juror (obviously it would be absolutely sickening as well, that goes without saying. An absolute disgrace and something that no right thinking person could ever truly understand. But the more grievous the crime, the more exciting the judging process; I think that’s pretty much a given), but I wasn’t about to complain. Just think, it could have been some pikey who’d swiped a pair of knock-off Evisu from a market stall in Deptford.

I can tell you this now, readers, although I wouldn’t have told you at the time: I knew as soon as I saw the guy that I was going with a guilty verdict. There was just something about him. I’ve always had great instincts with people and, as the trial wore on over the next two weeks (they let us out at 3pm most days, and that was a glorious summer), these instincts were vindicated by everything that we learned about him.

So here’s the low-down: The accused was a man in his late 50s, his victim a former girlfriend twenty years his junior. A keen athlete – a competitor at (senior) national level – she returned home one evening and was shot in cold blood, from behind, while she unlocked her front door.

She lay on the path of her front garden, her cheek bone hard against the rain-slick tiles. Her ears were ringing, but she made out the sound of footsteps moving at pace away up the street. After a pause she heard a car door slam, an engine cough into life, and a vehicle speed away. All was quiet. Had there been a bomb, she thought? She watched the raindrops come down at her, blinking them out of her eyes, and wondered if she was going to die – if she was going to die here, on a winter’s evening, alone, as the hard rain nailed the cold night to the city.

Neighbours appeared, having heard the shotgun thunder take her legs from under her. “Don’t worry, love,” said a kindly voice. “There’s an ambulance on its way.” The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was the sound of the siren. Then, all was black.”

Now, obviously she didn’t say all this during the trial and I’ve used a certain amount of licence in the description. It’s a new thing; I’m thinking of becoming a writer of hard-boiled, chilling fiction. People love thrillers and I reckon I’ve got the kind of imagination that could give them the thrill they’re seeking. I’ll be honest, though, I did steal that line about the hard rain from genre master Dean Koontz. There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants, though. I’m the Noel Gallagher to Dean’s John Lennon.

There was a real cast of characters in the courtroom, readers, and it felt like I was in a TV drama, or a film. The thing is, I’ve never watched any British courtroom dramas, so I couldn’t be one hundred per cent sure.

The clerk of the court was a nervous, shaky little man whom we on the jury nicknamed Mr Actually. This is because he said the word ’actually’ once for every other five or six words that he spoke. Roger Hargreaves could probably have written a book about him. Here’s an example:

“Ok ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I’m actually the clerk of the court and that actually means that I explain how everything actually works. Actually what will happen is that in a minute I’ll actually ask you to stand up, actually, and I’ll say ‘all rise’ and the Judge will actually come in. Actually.”

Poor Mr Actually, he was to become a figure of fun for us over the next couple of weeks as we’d keep tallies of his ‘actuallies’ on the pads where we were supposed to be taking notes pertinent to the case. As I’ve said, though, the bloke was clearly guilty, so there wasn’t actually any need.

My killer instincts for people were proven once again as it became clear that the accused could offer no alibi for the time of the shooting, a car seen speeding from the scene was the same make and colour as one he owned and he had a shotgun. They actually dry fired it in the courtroom. The hairs on my arms stood up. Furthermore, he’d beaten her during their relationship, stalked her after she ended it, smashed up her bicycle, emptied her bins over her front garden and earned himself a restraining order forbidding him from coming within 100 yards of her (something that was quite clearly overlooked during the trial, although I didn’t say anything).

When we retired to reach our verdict one of my fellow jurors pointed out that the evidence was all circumstantial. But I was having none of that old nonsense and I soon got everyone else on my side (including the girls, who just wanted to go home and therefore favoured a nice quick wrap-up). So there he was, guilty as charged. He got seven years, because the judge said we couldn’t prove intent to kill. So he actually went down for GBH and possession of a firearm with intent to commit harm. Personally I figured that if you’re going to point a shotgun at someone and pull the trigger – and a shotgun is a spread weapon, don’t forget – then you stand a fairly good chance of killing them. Still, the judge was the man in charge and we did as we were told. He was probably pleased to get a nice swift resolution so he could go and get spanked by some dominatrix. That’s what they like, judges. It’s a transfer of power thing, it helps them unwind.




  1. Well, I think you've made a good start as a writer of hard-boiled, chilling fiction. And I'm glad that you could help put a man away for attempted murder. I can't quite believe that I've never been called for jury duty. I would like to be called in the next six months or so, before I retire from work. After that, I'll be much too busy!

  2. yes really.... I agree with above comments.


  3. There is usually an open space between the bench and the counsel tables, because of the court clerk and court reporter's tables in front of the bench and the jury box on the side. This space is called the well. It is extremely disrespectful to the court for persons who are not court employees to directly "traverse the well" without permission—that is, to walk directly towards the bench across the well—and some courts have rules expressly forbidding this.Instead, if documents need to be given to or taken from the judge, attorneys are normally expected to approach the court clerk or bailiff, who acts as an intermediary. During trials, attorneys will ask the court's permission to traverse the well or "approach the bench" for "sidebar" conferences with the judge.

    Solicitors in Manchester