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Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
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Judge robs jury of wasted civic duty

Next time your name appears on a Ministry of Justice letter, don't think of the extra pressure on your car accelerator last week. Hope instead that the correspondence contains the magical words Jury Service. You will not regret it.

Nathan Smith
Thu, 06 Sep 2012

Most people defer jury service because it simply gets in the way of normal life.

A letter arrives in the mail and suddenly lives overflow with important tasks and commitments.

There are so many crucial things to do that there’s no way that duty public duty can be fitted in right now. If only they’d ask at an appropriate time!

But there probably won’t be an appropriate time. And, of course, no matter how anyone battles the Ministry of Justice, if they’ve sent that letter they are bound to get you in the end.

Some citizens do have commitments they physically cannot be away from, and that’s fine.

But as I eavesdropped early in the process when a juror approached the judge’s throne bench asking to be excused for work responsibilities, “everybody has responsibilities, and no, I can’t excuse you”.

I’ll be honest. I applied to be excused when I first got the letter last year. I was granted leave that time (see, it is possible, you just have to plead your case with deft precision).

Something about my second deferral request didn’t smell kosher to whichever poor soul reads such correspondence.

Either the ministry gets tougher each time they call on you or I lacked my earlier “precision” sentence structure and couldn’t convince the gatekeepers to reject my attendance. I’ll console myself in believing it was the former.

Finally caught in their net
Frustratingly, I was caught in their net, dragged as it is through the law-abiding Auckland adult population. It was time to take another approach, plan B if you will.

Immediately, my mind began to flash through methods of speedily becoming corruptible.

I’ve always thought the death penalty was archaic but was now the time to introduce a sudden morbid attraction to the idea and channel Thanatos?

Good plan, extremely unworkable.

I could attend the initial day and discuss loudly and obnoxiously my impatience with the corrupt New Zealand justice system while exasperated justice officials loitered nearby.

Or perhaps I could quickly be educated in an almanac of racial slurs.

So many thoughts; so little time.

How long could jury service realistically last? Five days? Maybe a week and a half? I’d be back in my office before I knew it. So I steeled my resolve and prepared to complete my summons.

Much to the disappointment of my colleagues I trudged off to do my civic duty.

I couldn’t promise them my plans for freedom would be successful, but I have been known to act as a convincing moron from time to time.

The judge might take pity on my act and grant me glorious freedom from the chains of jury service so I could return to work.

Judges are after all only human, prone to making mistakes and being fooled by convincing acts.

Admittedly, these performances are usually of innocence, a string tragically not attached to my acting bow and generally performed by the masters of criminal theatre: the criminals themselves.

Assumed I was mistaken
Arriving at the courtrooms deep in the heart of Auckland early on Monday, I at once assumed I was mistaken. Maybe the correct building was elsewhere.

This address definitely displayed the expected garden ornaments of scruffy-looking humans and a distinct air of recidivism. I just couldn’t believe it was a house of justice.

The entrance to this structure resembled a US embassy post-9/11, replete with a total of six enormous security guards sporting buzz cuts and body armour.

With my few belongings already being x-rayed on the conveyor belt, I passed under the foreboding metal detectors.

My tongue shifted slightly to the left to avoid the inevitable beeping of discovery. But it was in vain, the detectors detected and it was my mischievous metal coat buttons which gave me away.

I braced myself for the inevitable assault from the nearby guards, but they were extremely cordial and let me pass.

Sitting in the processing room with the other 100 or so potential jurors, all equally gloomy, we were shown a charming little video of what we could expect as we became the very pillars of constitutional society.  

The instructional video was absolutely perfect, no information was neglected or forgotten, but all of it was repeated. Just in case we didn’t hear it the first three or four times.

As I sleepily drifted off thinking of Orwell, a ballot was produced and names read out. Having just been clearly shown what to expect and how to act in this formal process, I left my seat calmly and without haste as soon as I heard my name.

Alongside my increasingly curious fellow jurors, I proceeded upstairs to court, barely containing my excitement.  When we arrived, the whittling down of the 30 or so jurors to the correct quota of 12 began.

This involved a curious method by which the defence lawyer could, quite discriminatorily I must say, deny a position to any juror he wished by simply hearing their name and looking at them.

Such judgment and prejudice in a courtroom! I had been forewarned of this action, so it was with real trepidation that I moved to take my seat.

Apparently “Smith” is fairly generic name and didn’t ring any alarm bells.

Such a feeling of success
Finally, I was on the jury. Such a feeling of success. How quickly the judicial process had knocked aside my devious plans of escape. I believe learned men in spectacles call this process institutionalisation.

My 11 fellow jurors were as yet still unknown to me, but the courtroom officials wanted to make sure the defendant was equally opaque. The entire courtroom turned accusing eyes on the jury as the defendant’s name was read out.

None of my co-jurors indicated association, but the distinct feeling of judgment lingered. Who exactly was on the stand again?

The trial was fairly straightforward; although I have an N size of 1 for comparison (an insignificant data-set for a robust conclusion) I assume it was reasonably traditional.

Witnesses were called, some more interesting than others. I was catching an emerging theme, however – a keen pattern-seeking mind is imperative for sound deliberation after all.

The expert witnesses, almost all of whom were government employees, displayed the identical knack for unnecessary repetition as their earlier colleagues. Is this attribute natural or nurtured, I wondered?  

When the first break was called the jurors shuffled off quietly in our imagined shackles to a special, isolated room.

Here I got my first good look at the forlorn faces of the jury. There were no cries of recognition. Drawn from all over Auckland, it would have been a miracle if we had ever driven past each other.

I looked from one face to another seeing only the unemployed, the student, the disabled and the elderly. I was warned of this. A trial by one’s peers, they promised. Each face reinforced my disdain for the judicial system.

Then one of these “citizens” suggested we introduce ourselves, no surnames. Marvellous! Let’s hear how each of you bludgeons off society, attending jury service because it gives you something to do.

Sitting around me was a teacher and a horticulturalist, a scientist and a journalist, an electrician and a managing director, an accountant and a banker, a cashier and a government worker, and a physiotherapist.

I was stunned. Here I was seated with the very essence and colour of society. The naïve expectation of a split spectrum of charming but reckless rejects was soundly punished.

All under some duress
We were all of us sitting here under some duress, having left behind jobs and families to uphold the reverent values of the New Zealand constitution. I had found my affinity.

One juror had attempted the day before, unsuccessfully I might add, to parade his inflated importance - and therefore his unsuitability for jury service - by wearing a neatly pressed suit.

I have never understood the connection between a business suit and importance. But he clearly thought he did, and he gave it the old college try.

Aside from his example, the jury dressed somewhere between Sunday best and Sunday worst. The women still clung to traces of self-respect but the men appeared to have just arrived from a long day on the couch.

Needless to say, the suited individual fell into line the next day, donning a hoody and jeans. For law-abiding citizens these members of the jury certainly understood the intricacies of protesting with their wardrobe, almost as well as thier criminal fellow citizens.

The defendant dressed with much more respect, treating the courtroom with the gravity it possibly deserved.

I had quietly anticipated (hoped?) for an exciting murder or conspiracy case, but I was to have no such fortune.

The offence was white-collar in nature and could have been thoroughly tedious if not for the Shakespearian characters. Of course, if Romeo were alive today he would probably have asked for counselling.

As the trial progressed I found myself fascinated with the professionalism and cinema of the lawyer for the defence.

A classic, comic-book lawyer with a square jaw and imposing stature, the lawyer pointed and prodded the air more animatedly than an evangelical preacher.

His slicked-back hair occasionally releasing a strand from strict hair-gel incarceration to fall casually across his furrowed brow as he peered at mountains of notes on the desk.

He seemed to get along quite well with the judge, albeit extremely professionally, but clearly not with the Crown prosecutor.

For no matter how often they referred to each other as “my learned friend”, I harboured doubts the two lawyers ever played mini-golf together.

In fact, as we wrote down intriguing pieces of information on our specially supplied Juror Notepads, the heavy details of the first few days gave way to human drama.

The always-entertaining defence lawyer made it obvious when we should write details down. A sentence closing with a surreptitious, but poignant, glance towards the jury would signal the clicks of engaged pens. He made things so much easier.

Hours in court blurred
As the week wore on the court hours blurred. The juror seats becoming harder and more uncomfortable as the witnesses grew stranger.

Although I was treating the experience as a pseudo-holiday, I was heading back to the office during each lunch break and again for a few hours once the court broke up for the day.

After only two days of mostly awkward silence in the juror room, we began to discuss the case together, stopping only when a juror left the room (we had to discuss as one group, according to the rules).

Between mouthfuls of lavish chocolate biscuits, spared no expense, my fellow jurors pieced together the evidence trying to decide one person’s fate.

Responsibly, we collectively delayed our decision until all the evidence was presented.

Although the evidence swayed our private conclusions, we righteously refused to pass premature judgement lest our conscience be tarnished when a person is led to the cells forever (or at least a few years until parole is offered).

We discussed as a jury the upcoming inevitable deliberation process. Some were optimistic about making a good decision, others were worried that the evidence would be ambiguous and our decision impossible.

All of us were hoping we wouldn’t turn out to be “that guy”.

Legend speaks of the lone juror stubbornly holding to a precious detail, belligerently shaking their head just when others are nodding.

We laughed about this terrible prospect once or twice. But the laughs were hollow, suspiciously trailing off into a faintly hysterical mirth as our gaze focused intensely on interesting pieces of fluff on the ground.

Fortified resolve unnecessary
But our fortified resolve was ultimately unnecessary.

The judge, in all his wisdom, decreed that the Crown case had collapsed and stayed the defendant on all counts.

Our hopes and fears were alleviated. We didn't have to make a decision. The atmosphere in the room dropped appreciatively as we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Turning to the jury bench, our esteemed judge explained why he made his decision. Having immersed himself in the evidence long before the trial date, his pre-determined decision was simply reinforced by the witnesses.

I couldn’t help but notice the duplicity of such a remark. The jury was instructed to keep an open mind, but the verdict was confirmed before we sat down. Perhaps His Honour is entitled to such a decision, but then why assemble a jury?

It’s all very confusing and smacked of a waste of precious court time.

Continuing, the judge reiterated that, even without making a decision on the case, our presence is greatly appreciated, ensuring the judicial system remains fair and balanced.

Twelve people unknown to each other just seven days earlier were free at last. Like the 10,000 Greeks we cried, “The sea, the sea!” and awkwardly crammed into an elevator for the last time.

Stepping over the detritus of society and pushing through the great unwashed crowds outside, the members of the jury departed the dreary court building.

My Kafkaesque ordeal was over
A sunny day shone brilliantly as I filled my free lungs with crisp, exhaust-filled Auckland air. My Kafkaesque ordeal had finished.

Glancing behind me at the end of the street I thought I glimpsed a familiar figure of a juror. But like wraiths and shadows they departed from whence they came, never to be seen together again.

Perhaps someday I will look over a crowd and recognise a familiar face. Will I remember their name? Could our experience ever be relived? Or would we simply smile and nod as we passed like jurors in the night.

I expect all members of my jury enjoyed their experience. None of us volunteered our services, yet heroically we shouldered the burden expected of all fair-minded citizens and rolled up our sleeves.

There is no comparison for jury service. One must experience the task to fully appreciate just how rigidly traditional such a pillar of our society really is.

Next time your name appears on a Ministry of Justice letter, think not of your extra pressure on the car accelerator last week. Instead, hope the correspondence contains the magical words, ‘Jury Service’.

You will not regret it.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict.

Nathan Smith
Thu, 06 Sep 2012
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Judge robs jury of wasted civic duty