Malpoet raised an interesting discussion point recently with his piece titled 'Abolish the Jury System'. Though I remain as instinctively opposed to his line of argument as I was beforehand, one of the points he raised was particularly difficult to counter. Essentially, a jury is made up of a wide cross-section of society, some of whom will be considerably better at absorbing and understanding the facts of the case than others. Many will be respectable and responsible men and women, but then again a few might not be. The likelihood of a jury consisting of 12 individuals all possessed with high levels of mental aptitude and undoubted integrity is slim to none when one looks at the situation from that angle, ergo - the scope for a miscarriage of justice increases if those passing judgement comprise of a large element who are either dumb, dishonest or both.
So was Joanne Fraill dumb, dishonest or both? Well what has become clear from her conviction and eight month sentence for contempt of court is that she had more than an inkling that by contacting recently acquitted defendant (Miss) Jamie Stewart, there was the risk of some serious legal consequences. While discussing the case with Stewart online, Fraill reminded her new Facebook friend that "pleeeeee dont say anything cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and I will get 4cked to0". Once the text speak is unravelled then it becomes pretty cut and dried that Fraill knew what she was getting involved in by contacting one defendant and carrying out 'research' into another. Stewart immediately told her solicitor of the conversation, and with it triggered the collapse of a £6 million trial that was still ongoing.
Gary Knox, Stewart's girlfriend and one of the defendants on whom no verdict had been reached at the time of Fraill's Facebook foray, is currently serving a six year sentence following a conviction for corrupting a police officer. However, he is planning an appeal on the basis of the farce into which the original drugs case descended. You can't really blame him for trying, and there will be at least some chance of this appeal being successful. I happen to see the lucrative nature of narcotic distribution as pretty firm evidence for the legalisation of them. However, that's for another day and what appeared to be proven beyond reasonable doubt last December was that Knox had PC Phil Berry in his pocket and had bought himself sensitive police information icluding the names of potential 'grasses'. Both men were rightly jailed - Berry for 'misconduct in a public office' and the accompanying 'conspiracy to' on Knox's part.
There are many who have expressed sympathy for Fraill in the wake of her conviction and the eight month custodial sentence which followed. Stewart, who herself received a suspended sentence, was amongst them, "I really feel for the woman. She's got kids. She apologised and she's not a bad lady." This of course raises two separate points. If she had not wanted Fraill to end up in chokey, she could always have er...not told her solicitor about their Facebook conversation...just a thought? From a distance it looks like her overwhelming concern was collapsing the trial of Gary Knox, and that the potential fallout was of secondary importance at best. As for "she's got kids", well I've heard this nonsense enough times in a multitude of cases to stop being genuinely annoyed by it.
The logical conclusion of that sentiment is that we should have two parallel sets of laws with requisite sentencing guidelines - one for the childless, the unmarried and the single, which is a draconian rulebook backed up by punishments akin to 'hang, flog or lock up and throw away the key'. The alternative legal framework contains exactly the same set of offences, but completely excuses some and results in much less severe punishments for others when applied to those who "have kids, or a family, or dependants". Of course under this system, nobody with children, or a husband/wife, or an elderly dependant can be given any form of custodial sentence, regardless of what they have done.
Next time someone attempts to tug at your heartstrings by wheeling out this argument, try to remember the natural endgame of what they are suggesting. Yes, Fraill has children, and it will indeed be horrible for them to live without a mum for four months or so. Naturally, I feel for them because of the position that their mother's stupidity has put them in, but that sympathy does not extend to Fraill herself, and no amount of emotional blackmail is going to bring it about. Did she stop and think about her kids before dabbling in a bit of Diagnosis Murder online, and compromising a £6 million trial? Clearly not, and so it baffles me when 'personal circumstances' like these are taken into account in any case. What's wrong with one law that applies equally to all without fear or favour? Can someone please tell me why someone's gender, marital or maternal/paternal status should ever be brought into the equation?
I support jury trials and always will - they are as someone once said on another subject, "far from perfect but a damn sight better than the next best thing". Coming from a political position that is predisposed towards suspicion of the state, I've seen the growth of a new form of totalitarianism masquerading under the cloak of a 'democratic' society. The thought of politicised justice scares me half to death, and that's why I think Malpoet, a man for whom I have enormous respect and agree with on many issues, is badly and dangerously wrong on the subject of juries. Replacing them with appointed inqusitive judges will take away the right of people like you and I to set free a man or woman whose prosecution was motivated by a political agenda rather than a legal one. It will also leave those inquisitors with a vested interest in pushing through such cases to placate those who appointed them in the first place.
However, we have to get juries to a point of being as close to perfect as possible. It would completely undermine the principle of trial by your peers to start suggesting that only people 'intelligent' enough to be jurors should take part, as some would have it. Exactly what the test would be to determine fitness for jury service escapes me, and the unwilling could always supply the 'wrong' answers on purpose, couldn't they? What we can of course do is ensure that jurors are honest and stick to their task of absorbing the facts of the case to the best of their albeit varied abilities. Moreover, the remit of a jury and its component parts needs to be made clearer than ever in a shrinking world where information, and indeed misinformation are available at the click of a mouse - ie you're here to hear the case, not play private detective and solve it yourselves.
The brilliantly-named Lord Judge appeared to be taking steps in this regard in his ruling in the Joanne Fraill case, "her conduct in visiting the internet repeatedly was directly contrary to her oath as a juror, and her contact with the acquitted defendant, as well as her repeated searches on the internet, constituted flagrant breaches of the orders made by the judge for the proper conduct of the trial." The key element in this case appeared to be the fact that however much her actions owed to naivety, she clearly knew that they were illegal, and likely to collapse the original trial. The alternative to jury trials is hideous in my view, but for them to work they need to maintain the ongoing confidence of the public to deliver just outcomes. With that in mind, it is logical to conclude that Lord Judge's ruling was a brave and correct one, and that jury trial itself was the winner of this case.