When (in 2007) the Order arrived in the mail to attend the local District Court for Jury Summons, I was partly intrigued and partly delighted. Intrigued, as I had been summonsed once before (2005), but not called to Duty, so I’d missed that experience. Delighted, as it is an experience I knew would help me understand the NZ Justice Trial process, and I did want to carry out the responsibility for my country.
So even though I was past the age of being allowed to request being stood down, I was there on time, and well stocked with water and my EFTPOS card for café meals.
We sat, all forty of us, in the Jury Summons room. Some folk there knew each other, many knew no one. All forty name cards were all put into a tumbler (no electronic randomising here) before thirty would be drawn to go to the courtroom for selection for jury duty.
Before they tumbled them, we were told there were two trials to begin that day. So those whose names were not drawn for the first selection were to have to wait until that selection was complete, and those who were not selected had returned, to be re-tumbled and names drawn for the second trial. All forty cards were put into the tumbler, and thirty were called – including me.
We were led to Courtroom Three, sat in the gallery, and our name cards were placed into a smaller tumbler.
We were advised of who the defendants and witnesses were, and advised if we knew them, we were to tell the Jury Officer who would then approach His Honour who would discuss whether or not he or she could be impartial. If not, that person would be dropped from duty on that case.
When a name was called, that person approached the jury box. If neither the Prosecution Counsel nor the Defending Counsel called “Objection”, then they took a seat in the Jury box, unless they wished to ask the Magistrate to be excused.
Each Counsel has five opportunities to object to a potential jury member. Neither has to explain to anyone why they object to that person being on the jury.
I noticed some thus rejected were relieved, happy even, to not have to sit on the jury.
When twelve jury members had been selected, we were taken to the Jury Room, to appoint the Jury Foreperson (to blazes with it – Foreman will do). I was chosen by the eleven people in the room.
On returning to the courtroom, paper in hand naming who was Jury Foreman, the eleven jurors had to respond to the Magistrate’s request to affirm they agreed to the choice.
The Magistrate then explained briefly how court proceedings would follow the New Zealand law, which I’ll summarize.
In New Zealand, a defendant can choose whether to be tried by a Judge or by Jury. The Jury is selected to represent the defendant’s peers.
In a Jury trial, the role of the Judge is to “judge the law” – that is, to assure the law regarding prosecution and trial proceedings is followed correctly.
The Judge does not judge the case, nor the Prosecution’s presentation of proof. That is the Jurors’ job.
Under NZ law, a defendant is innocent, and his/her lawyer does not have to prove innocence. The defence does not have to call witnesses, provide documents of proof – only to point out what I would call “holes in the prosecution’s case”.
The burden of proof lies on the Prosecution, for the Crown. They call witnesses, and offer documents and evidence to build the case against the defendant.
In the first case there were two defendants, each charged with two counts of participating in criminal activity.
The physical evidence comprised a book of photographs of the scene of crime, including photos of the “gear” required and used for the criminal activity, and of the one defendant’s fingerprint on one item of “gear”.
We heard the scene of the crime had been a target of an undercover investigation over two years, seeking evidence of committing allegations of activities relating to an illicit substance – nothing to do with the crime with which these defendants were being charged.
Three police officers gave witness on a number of points…
- one defendant had been observed as present at the scene on one occasion
- the other was seen at the scene on one different occasion
- one defendant had been seen fleeing the property on the same occasion he was seen there
- of both defendants being at the scene when a police raid occurred
- that the other defendant had tried to flee the scene during the raid.
A Police “Expert Witness” spoke for some time, but merely repeated what the earlier officers had said, and answered questions about what police in general knew of how these illegal activities often played out.
The defence spoke of how the lad who’d run had a reason for running – a reason completely unrelated to the particular cause of his arrest during the raid. He spoke of why the two lads had been present at the time of the raid – a very probable, comparably innocent, reason. He reminded us of the lack of proof of some of the prosecution’s claims in support of the charges.
On the second day of the trial the last prosecution witness was heard, each lawyer summed up, and before we retired, the presiding judge reminded us of who bore the burden of proof.
Even as we left the courtroom, we knew holes in the prosecution case were large.
In very short time, we reached our verdict. Not guilty, on either charge, for both defendants.
The Police case had not proved “intent” of committing the illegal act of which they were charged – intent being the first decision of being proven guilty or not.
The Jury Supervisor was caught by surprise by how rapidly we sent word of having reached a verdict.
After I pronounced our verdicts on the two charges against the two defendants and they had been dismissed from the courtroom, the judge duly thanked us for our service, and also remarked that he was not surprised by the verdicts we had reached.
On the following morning, we assembled again in the Jury Summons room, for jury selection for the second trial of the week. My name was called again for Selection, and in the courtroom my name was called again for Duty, and in the courtroom I was selected to serve.
This trial had one defendant, charged with burglary. (In NZ, burglary includes both breaking and entering, and/or theft from the premises.)
The property had been burgled of high-end media appliances, clothing, and the occupants’ tools.
All the tenants were skilled labourers, working for one employer at more than one construction site.
The evidence included another crime scene photograph collection, in which were two photographs of the window the defendant allegedly had broken, (and allegedly climbed through to unlock the back door) and two photographs of fingerprints taken from that window’s sill.
Three prosecution witnesses were called – residents of the property, and one frequent visitor. Only one said he had seen the defendant inside the house on a social occasion, two said they’d seen him on the property once (each) but not inside the house. Much was made of which room he had been in when seen.
In his defence a witness was called, who said he had gone to the property, inside the house, but could not say definitely whether the defendant had been in more than the only room in which his fingerprint (hand print, actually) had been lifted and identified. The defence lawyer pointed out the police could not state definitively whether the fingers had been made “from the outside reaching in”, or made by the defendant leaning against the sill while having drinks in that room.
Even before the Judge summed up the legal points, we all felt not one aspect of the defendant’s alternative story had been checked by the Police.
They had not checked at the defendant’s work site (to learn if he had been at work, late to work, taken off from work for a while, or left early at the end of the work day);
they had not told us what time the employer’s vehicles (picking each crew up to take them to work) had left the property;
nor how long it would have taken the defendant to get from either home or work back to the property,
nor whose was the clearly visible second hand print (on top of the first one offered as proof the defendant had been the one who’d supposedly climbed in).
The prosecution had included in their evidence the fact the defendant could not be found after their visit to the crime scene. (…they cannot check with every known acquaintance?)
We came to a unanimous verdict based on insufficient proof -Not Guilty. Again, the Judge said he wasn’t surprised. So…a second occasion when the Police and Forensics had failed to prepare a case.
On the fourth day I went for Jury Summons, and again my name was tumbled out for Jury Selection – as were all twelve of us who had served on trials one and two.
We were like a bunch of little kids, snickering whenever a familiar name was called. Those not up for Jury Selection were allowed to leave.
We sat there, waited, waited, waited…
The Jury Supervisor returned to tell us the trial was “off”, and we would not be needed, and need not call the free-phone that night.
I was on the bus by 9:35, walked from the local bus stop home, and dumped everything as I entered my room. I spent the rest of the day relaxing.
I had no idea how, during the three days serving, I’d become so fatigued. The stairs to and from the Jury and Court rooms were nothing.
It was the need to totally focus every sense, and every brain cell, on every word. Friday was almost flat by comparison.
I’d made friends, I’d used my analysis and communication skills, I’d contributed to my country’s justice procedure.
Would I ever, if summoned, request to be “let off”?
No way… It was fascinating, important, and enjoyable.