First of all, I’d like to apologise to everyone who reads this blog for having been so silent lately. I’ve been doing jury service, which has knocked the wind out of my sails much more than I expected – partly because I’ve had to keep up with bits of the day job as well (in particular, the March conference for which I organise the speaker programme), partly because it was quite a debilitating experience. However, I’d like you all to know how much I appreciate your continued interest in the blog and I promise to do better in future, starting with today!
I’m not going to write too much about the trial itself, as I don’t think that this would be fair, particularly as the judge has yet to pass sentence on the two defendants (whom we found guilty on one of the three counts, not guilty on the other two), but I should like to reflect briefly on the overall experience.
I was first called to serve on the jury of a much bigger trial, of a doctor who is accused of thirteen counts of rape that are alleged to have taken place across four decades. I’d very much like to have been one of these jurors, but the judge warned that this trial would last for at least six weeks, so I had to ask to be excused, because of the very conference I’ve already mentioned. I was a little apprehensive about it, because this judge was quite strict about which excuses he would accept – he didn’t rate lambing as a good one, for example.
I’d been warned by others who’ve done jury service that it involves a lot of waiting about. This is true, but the only really tedious bit is waiting to be assigned to a trial. I was assigned to ‘my’ trial on the morning of the second day – not bad, considering I’d already been asked to serve in the rape case – but at least one juror in waiting who arrived at the same time as I did on the Monday morning was still waiting to be called at the end of the first week!
Jurors are repeatedly told that they are the most important people taking part in a trial, because, of course, it is their verdict that finally finds the defendant guilty or not. Despite this, being a juror was curiously like the first day at primary school – trouping around with a group of other people, all of us united in not really knowing what we were supposed to do next. We soon got the hang of it and we had a particularly nice court usher looking after us – a woman called Shirley who, surprisingly, said that one of the most interesting cases she could remember involved a dispute between neighbours over bees (she indicated that, after a while, ushers become blasé about rapes and murders, because they have to listen to evidence about so many). My ears pricked up at this, as my husband keeps bees, as does one of our neighbours, but (as far as I know!) their relationship is extremely amicable and mutually supportive and neither has yet tried to sabotage the other’s hives.
Even when a jury has been sworn in and the trial has started, jurors get lots of breaks. Some of these are to allow the lawyers to discuss ‘points of law’; some are because witnesses are delayed or there is some other hitch – for example, a policewoman giving evidence at our trial had to go back to her office to fetch her notebook. The jury sits out short breaks in an ante-room just beyond the court; if the break is likely to be longer, the usher escorts the jury members back to the jury waiting room, where there is a small café, a television and a supply of books and magazines. Jurors are given a swipe-card that allows them to spend £5.71 per day on drinks and food from the café. (The sum appears to be adequate for female jurors, while most male jurors need to supplement it!)
Jury service officially lasts for two weeks, but if the trial takes longer jurors have to serve longer; if the trial is shorter, sometimes the jurors are allowed to go early. Some jurors serve on four or five short cases, each of which lasts only a day or two. Our trial went on for eight and a half days, which meant that we had fulfilled our duty as jurors by the time that it was over. More than a day of this was spent on reaching our verdict – it was a difficult case for several reasons, not least being that the victims suffered from dementia and therefore could not testify.
As a crime writer, I had been looking forward to doing jury service and although, as I’ve said, I don’t intend to write about the trial directly, I’m certain that the experience will have benefited my writing. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for how physically and emotionally exhausting it would be – hence my long silence. I’d like to apologise again for this. Thank you for waiting for me.