Saturday, September 13, 2008

"A law indifferent to blame or praise"

posted by k

The year was 1670. Twelve jurors swore an oath to try William Penn and William Mead on the charges of addressing an unlawful assembly. On the bench, conducting the case and preparing the sentence, was Sam Starling, Lord Mayor of London, sitting with aldermen, Sherifs and a Recorder.

The case got off to a bad start when Penn and Mead, in accordance with Quaker practice, refused to take off their hats in court. The question of "hat honour" was thought important by Quakers as the time. They saw it as a way in which undue honour was given to certain individuals because of their wealth, birth or position. There were arguments over evidence and the law - the magistrates were particularly annoyed that William Penn cited statute law in his defence while William Mead demonstrated a knowledge of legal Latin. The case proceeded in a bad-tempered way until the jury, who had heard all the evidence, came back to deliver their verdict. And that's when the trouble began.

Initially there was disagreement between the jurors: eight agreed with one another and four dissented. The magistrates blamed this on a particular juror, Mr Bushel, who they threatened with violence. They sent the jurors out again and eventually they returned to deliver their verdict.

The jurors agreed that William Penn was guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street but refused to add that the meeting was an unlawful assembly. They found William Mead not guilty.

The mayor and his fellow magistrates were furious. The mayor turned on the foreman of the jury. "I thought you had understood your place better," he said. Then the Recorder turned to the jurymen: "Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse to court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it."

The jury returned the following morning and repeated their verdict. The magistrates refused to accept it.

And so it went on, with the magistrates threatening all kinds of punishment and the jurors refusing to give in. The Recorder even threatened the jurors with that a new law would be made to deprive them of legal protection.

Finally the jurors changed their verdict; they found both William Penn and William Mead not guilty. The magistrates immediately imposed fines on Penn, Mead and all the jurors for contempt of court. On appeal, the jurors were freed under Habeas Corpus, setting a precedent which still protects those who sit on juries.

Today juries and jury trials are under further threat. The British government has already moved many cases from jury trials to magistrates courts. Now it is moving away from trials alogether and preferring detention without trial and summary "justice". On-the-spot fines are cheaper and less time-consuming than law and justice. The right to administer summary "justice" has even been sold to private companies, whose staff can be accredited on payment of a fee. At least the child and adult informers, bribed with rewards of up to £500 to spy and give evidence against their neighbours, aren't yet allowed to act as judge and jury in the cases.

Some cases still reach juries. However in the past week newspaper reporters and bloggers have fulminated against jurors for reaching an unexpected verdict in two cases. In the case of the would-be terrorists and alleged terrorists tried at the old Bailey, "sources close to the case" informed the press that the jury had behaved badly and the judge had conducted the case wrongly. The verdicts, which the jury returned after hearing five months' worth of evidence, were rubbished in a couple of paragraphs by people who hadn't heard the case or considered its strength.

Perhaps most worrying were the attacks on the jurors for taking time off for illness and medical appointments - and on the judge for allowing this. There is bound to be illness in any group of twelve people during a five month period and of course the case was held up when this happened - all the jurors must hear all the evidence. Had the jurors found the defendants guilty on all counts, I don't believe anyone would have made a fuss.

I was depressed too by blogs attacking the verdict in the case of the environmental activists at Kingsnorth, who were acquitted of causing crimninal justice. The defendants used the defence of "lawful excuse", arguing that climate change presented an urgent threat to people elsewhere in the world. One of their witnesses was an Inuit. The jurors were directed by the judge about the circumstances in which "lawful excuse" applied as a defence. They accepted the activists' argument that their action responded to an immediate need to protect the property of others.

I don't know all the scientific arguments about climate change but the defence of "lawful excuse" has a long history. I can see circumstances in which I too might break the law to protect other people and be glad of that defence. And I believe that the jurors who heard the case had a right to come to that verdict.

What would we do without trial by juries? "Trust the judges," some say. But judges are government appointees, dependent on the state for pay and promotion. While I'm sure that most judges act ethically, giving judges the power to reach a verdict lays them more open to threats and manipulation. The jurors force the lawyers to explain cases fully and clearly, so that each stage of the case and the law is explained publicly. They make the law and the evidence clear. The jury stand for the citizens of their country and have an obligation to justice.

When a jury stands out against public opinion or government, after hearing the evidence and the law, we should respect them and be grateful for their work.

At least one columnist has seen this and defended jurors against the rest of the press. When I read attacks on jurors in the press and the blogosphere, I can do no better than return to William Penn's words in 1670:

"It is intolerable that my jury should be thus menaced: Is this according to the fundamental laws? Are not they my proper judges by the great Charter of England? What hope is there of ever having justice done, when juries are threatened, and their verdicts rejected?"

Back in 1670 many people thought that a public Quaker Meeting was a source of danger. Today a marble plaque in the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) commemorates the twelve jurymen who acquitted William Penn and William Mead.

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