Juries and Stories
Before the summer break, I was on Jury Service. It was a fascinating, if harrowing, experience, not least from the point of view of the multiple stories at play. The case involved allegations of rape in a domestic setting.
Most obviously, the prosecution and the defence had very different stories to tell: their accounts of the same events were, as one would expect, radically different.
More interestingly, the chief witness for the prosecution (whom we shall call Ellie, as that is not her name) had many stories going on. Ellie had told wildly different accounts of the same incidents at different times; and had given completely contradictory statements to different agencies at different times. Moreover, on the few issues that were capable of being proven one way or the other by actual evidence, she was demonstrated not to be telling the truth.
But more interesting still were the stories going on in my head, and some of those in the heads of the other jurors.
One thing I noticed almost immediately when Ellie was in the witness box was that I did not warm to her: she was from such a different background, her view of life was so different, and so on. So I decided that in order to give her a fair hearing, I should listen to her as though it were one of my daughters giving evidence.
That, of course, made the whole experience much more distressing (and it was very distressing to start with) but also really heightened my attention. My anger at the accused (if Ellie was to be believed) was kindled to a real fury: how could any man treat any woman in such a way?
But of course, mindful of my own prejudices, and of the importance of the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial, when the accused took the stand, I listened to him as though it were my son giving evidence. And again that heightened both my attention and my response: how dreadful to be wrongly accused of such things, (if he was telling the truth).
It was revealed in the course of the evidence that Ellie had had a previous abusive relationship and her former partner was recently out of jail having served time for assaulting and raping her. And again, I noticed the stories starting to form in my head. On the one hand, there was the feeling that this added weight to her testimony: I know that women who have been in abusive relationships often end up in new abusive relationships (Eric Berne, of course has something to say about this). On the other had, it could also lend weight to the defendant’s case, as some of her protestations about not knowing how to get out of an abusive relationship rang a bit hollow in that context.
Another story, in both my head and in other jurors’, I think, was ‘believe the victim.’ We know how hard it is to get convictions in rape cases; and in particular in domestic rape cases. Evidence is almost impossible to gather, and frequently it will come down to her word against his. But the counter-narrative to that was ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – the whole foundation of our criminal jurisprudence.
In the event the problem I had with ‘believe the victim’ was deciding which of Ellie’s stories to believe: she had so many running, with so many contradictions and some that were proven to be untrue that I felt it impossible to give a guilty verdict, being under oath only to do so if I believed the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
Some other jurors agreed; others didn’t: their story of ‘believe the victim’ was much stronger, it seems.]
In the jury room, several other stories came into play, based on the jurors' differing life experiences and philosophies (and also humour: there was a story about the judge and the counsel for the defence that was based on almost nothing, but took on a life of its own...) But about these I cannot write, as what goes on in the jury room is not to be revealed, even after the conclusion of the trial, on pain of Contempt of Court.
As I say it was a harrowing experience, and given that we ended up a hung jury, I am not sure that justice was done.
But viewing it all through the lens of the many stories at play does shed some light on the difficulties we had in trying to reach a just verdict.