Early in 2006 I received a letter summonsing me for jury duty. As I was unemployed I had no excuse to avoid it. What’s more, it pays reasonably well if you’re out of work. I reported to the Downing Centre District Court on the appointed morning and found myself waiting with over a hundred other prospective jurors. As names were called, some submitted reasons for being exempted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Finally about twenty of us were led into a courtroom and seated in the visitors’ chairs. The judge, a dear old duck, the Crown Prosecutor and two barristers (one for each of the accused) were present, but not the accused. The prosecutor explained the facts of the case in some detail. The case involved two brothers and was in effect, two parallel trials as they were each charged with the same offence – hence the two barristers. We were read a list of names of people who might or might not be called as witnesses and told that if we knew any of these people we could be excused. This was not an escape from duty, as you merely returned to the main pool and would be selected for some other trial.
Finally we entered the jury box and in turn stood up. The barristers could reject up to three potential jurors each, merely by looking us over. This they did, until we were reduced to twelve in number, including myself. We never spoke a word in court, except for the foreman who delivered the verdict. We remained totally anonymous.
I found myself empanelled with eleven others on a case of intent to murder. Two brothers in their early twenties were accused of luring a friend into the bush south of Sydney (supposedly to harvest some cannabis) where they shot him in the back of the head and cut his throat. Strangely, he lived! The .22 bullet didn't even pierce his skull. The motive was revenge, as the victim had broken into the brothers' house and stolen money and pot.
Day One is spooky when twelve of you sit down in the jury room, never having met before. First you have to choose a foreman. We introduced ourselves by first name and Paul offered to be foreman. No one else wanted to do it, and he turned out to be an excellent choice. Amazing how we all got along - 7 men, 5 women, me the oldest, then ranging all the way down to a bright young 19 or 20 year old lad named Rhys. We didn't have any smart arse or show off and all maintained our sense of humour right to the end. Thank God, as it went on for seven weeks (minus Easter, Anzac Day and a few hitches caused by legal matters).
The accused were very handsome in a second-row scrum sort of way - boxing, footy, weights, etc - but we got an eyeful into their background. They were from housing commission (that is, Government provided) families from around Beverley Hills, a suburb in Sydney’s south, and my first experience of second generation druggies - all the parents were divorced, remarried or having children all over the place and no doubt sharing a joint or five - very sad.
Each day started at ten o’clock. Sometimes we had to leave the courtroom whilst the heavies discussed some legal point. Our court clerk was a most pleasant man. He would lead us in and out like schoolkids and deliver our notes to the judge when we raised some question. Before we entered the court from our own special corridor (we were always last to enter, first to leave) he would rap three times on the door. Later in the trial he handed this duty over to a very excited Rhys.
Lunch time was an hour. At first we got sandwiches, fruit and soft drinks, as the trial went into week three we graduated to a hot meal (and the daily allowance went up). We could get out at lunch time and I was grateful for this – otherwise it was somewhat claustrophobic. I would take my crossword to the Crown Hotel and have one glass of white wine. One afternoon Louise, a twenty-something juror with hopes of becoming a policewoman announced that she was sure the fat barrister was a drinker as she had a very sensitive nose for alcohol and regularly smelt it after lunch. I bought some breath mints.
As the trial dragged on, witness after witness, including the victim, was taken through the same story, over and over again until we knew it backwards. Two stories actually: the crown’s allegations and the accused boys’ alibi. Some professional experts and police were called.
The funniest witness of all was a teenage boy from New Zealand, a mate of the accused. When he was dismissed from the stand he thanked the Judge, shook hands with the startled Crown Prosecutor (a female), gave a thumbs-up to the barristers and profusely thanked the jury. We all held our breath until he had left the court and then the whole place went into uproar, judge and all.
The accused brothers sat silently in the dock each day, wearing suits and ties that they had obviously never worn before in their lives. They were never called to the stand and never spoke, though we did hear one of them on a police video on the day of arrest. At least one of their parents was there every day – we knew, because they looked like peas in a pod, even the Mum and Dad. (Incest? – it’s possible.)
One obviously under-age girl, a one-time girlfriend of one brother, gave evidence via a live video link-up. It was abruptly terminated when she told us we could all “fuck off”. Of course in the court you get actual, uncensored transcripts and it’s odd at first to hear the very pretty female prosecutor reading the “c-word” so matter-of-factly.
Oh, I almost forgot. On the first morning of the trial I could feel that this prosecutor was staring intently at me. I put it down to imagination, but she continued each day. It was a “Do you really think you should be here?” look. But in about the second week young Louise remarked, “That prosecutor spends half her time staring at you”, so it wasn’t just me. Magnetic charm? We’ll never know.
With the evidence over, we deliberated for two days and were by no means in agreement at the start. The two South Africans, the Bangladeshi woman and the New Guinea housewife (all Australian citizens, of course,) were all for guilty straight off, but we Anglos held out for quite a while. (The accused and witnesses were all Anglo, with some New Zealanders thrown in.) The trouble was that there was absolutely no collaborative evidence - no weapons, fingerprints, DNA, gunpowder residue, etc - and some pretty sloppy police work. But some rather dodgy alibis. It boiled down to one word against another –which story did we think more likely? Well, finally, I was the only one holding out, until the Bangladeshi woman beside me (we always sat in the same seats) reminded me, “Hugh, you only need reasonable grounds, not one hundred percent.” So we all agreed finally on guilty of intent to murder for both of them, and I'm convinced that was right. We probably won't know the sentence, which is handed down at a later date. Her Honour dismissed us after telling us that the barristers and herself agreed we had been most conscientious and that they were impressed with the way we had responded to the job. Some jurors had made copious notes. I just sat and listened. But it was quite stressful, and I took it very seriously, as did we all.
But at $100 or so a day, free hot lunch and travel allowance, it's just the ticket for the unemployed. (We could get out at lunchtime and went home each night - promising not to talk about the case to anyone, of course). And we can't be called for duty again for three years. The twelve of us left the court and went our separate ways and haven’t seen each other since. I’m extremely proud of having done my civic duty and put great faith in our jury system.
PS: I have a friend who is a judge and via him was able to discover that Her Honour had sent both the boys up the river for eight years. I feel that vindicated our verdict.