The other day, a Twitterfriend asked me what jury service was like, prompting me a year and a half after the fact to collect my thoughts upon what was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.
People either seem fascinated or horrified by the prospect of jury service and I definitely fell in the former category, perhaps because I’m freelance without a Real Job that would be disrupted by two weeks in court. Altogether it bore little resemblance to my usual existence, since in all other circumstances I eschew responsibility, gravitas and teamwork. Here is what happened.
On a Monday morning, seventy-odd jurors were summoned to a South London crown court and were sent to await the call for duty in a holding pen – a long, low-ceilinged room with hospital waiting room decor, no external windows and the old school smell of burnt cottage pie from the snack counter down one side. Whenever a new trial was about to begin, fifteen names were called, and those people would file down to one of several courtrooms, while everyone else waited on. Thankfully I’d brought a hefty book with me, because I spent six hours in the holding pen before being called. I was nonetheless relatively lucky, as some others were still waiting three days later.
Jury Tip no.1: take a good book. Free wifi? Dream on.
After an eon breathing in the cottage pie and staring out of the window onto a wall, fifteen of us trooped down to the courtroom. The judge had all our names on little cards and drew twelve, to ensure that the selection of jury members was as random as possible. The unchosen three returned to the holding pen to await another call; the rest of us took our seats. Everyone else was already in place: the judge higher than everyone, the defendant at the back behind a wall of glass. The room held a very diverse sample of society, and this particular mixture of individuals would under no other circumstances ever be brought together to share breathing space.
The judge was like a benevolent god. Clerks sallied in and out the room on mysterious errands, every few minutes conducting phone calls in absolute silence. We never saw anybody move; whenever a witness was brought in, we were always sent out until they were in the box. When you’re a juror, you’re always kept in the places where you’re supposed to be, and only shown what you’re supposed to see, a very theatrical effect which was enhanced by the judge, barristers and even all the clerks wearing the courtroom costume of robe, wig and elaborate high collar. When you see people wearing this get-up, you automatically know that Serious Business is taking place, and within a system which transcends individuality, i.e. I would have struggled to recognise the barrister I’d just stared at for the past six hours if I bumped into them wearing a tracksuit straight afterwards.
Jury Tip no.2: take copious notes. They provide you with pencils and paper, so write down absolutely every bit of information that is imparted. The act of note-taking helps you concentrate during proceedings, and the notes prove invaluable later during deliberation. The barristers spent the best part of six days blowing rhetorical smoke in our eyes; when we retired to deliberate, we had to force ourselves to concentrate only on the facts and ignore the impressions they had succeeded in creating in our minds.
We spent two whole days deliberating our verdict, locked in a blank white room until home-time. During deliberation, we were no longer allowed in the old beefy holding-pen; we had to enter the courthouse via an obscure back door, frequent corridors that were empty of jurors on other cases, speak about the case only to the rest of the jury, in its entirely. Aside from loo breaks, we always had to remain in the group of twelve. Always. This meant that when somebody wanted a cigarette, the following procedure had to happen:
1. We buzzed a clerk, and waited many minutes for one to reach our room.
2. We handed the clerk a written request to be allowed outside for a smoke.
3. The clerk took the note down to the judge, who was presiding over another trial.
4. Once the judge’s other trial had arrived at a suitable break, we were brought back into the courtroom.
5. The judge would tell us that we were allowed to go outside for a smoke for ten minutes, but we all had to stay together.
6. So we all stood by the back door in the cold until the cigarettes were extinguished, then returned to the deliberation room until the next cigarette craving.
I don’t smoke, and I never hated smokers more.
Jury Tip no.3: don’t smoke. Else you’ll be jittery all day without a regular fix, the non-smokers despise you, and you’re wasting the legal system’s time and resources.
Jury Tip no.4: take a flask of tea and some snacks to sustain you during deliberation. A clerk brings in service station sandwiches for lunch, and there is water, but if you’re deliberating for a long time, as we were, you may yearn for a hot drink and some food with actual nutritional value.
We deliberated and deliberated and deliberated. After a day of it, the judge dropped the unanimous requirement down to 10-2, but even then, I thought the deadlock might never end. Possibly not every juror wanted it to end. When the foreman suggested that, to clarify our thoughts, we all spend half an hour in silence writing down our perceptions of the case, the juror sitting next to me spent that time drawing a massive doodle of his name. Then he complained about wanting another cigarette.
At last we reached a verdict. We had to wait to deliver it until the judge had reached a hiatus in his new trial, and the defendant and barristers had been fetched and assumed their positions in the courtroom. So in another depressing windowless room we waited, jittery, because if we’d got it wrong, it would have a huge effect upon somebody’s life. One juror broke the tension by telling us all about how he was a psychic – the Shining runs in the family – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the room to wonder whether he was fit to sit on the jury (or whether it gave him an unfair advantage, if he could read the minds of the defendant and witnesses).
Finally, we went in. The foreman gave the verdict. The defendant – who never testified, I didn’t know they were not obliged to – showed no reaction at all. Then everything turned into a movie-style final act twist, as the judge told us all sorts of other information about the defendant, including their legal history, and we knew that our verdict had been the right one.
Then we were sent back upstairs to the holding pen and all reallocated to new juries. (My next case was far more straightforward, lasting only a day, under the impatient command of a new judge who was irascible in the Paxman style.) I had spent eight intense days as part of a unique twelve-headed organism, which was now disbanded back into its constituent parts; we melted away to our different parts of London and a week later, I could no longer remember any of their names.