My Recollections as a Sex Crime Juror

I have to concur with Alex Casey and Leah Damm, who in their Spinoff piece concluded that last week was a shitter for New Zealand women. What makes it especially bad is that the same can honestly be said of the last eight years. Our country's fortunes truly took a very sad turn when we swapped the strong, fiercely intelligent, albeit flawed Helen Clark for the ponytail-pulling abomination who allegedly leads us now, whose government tolerates the widespread poverty which helps to fuel our ongoing shocking rate of abuse of women and children, which couldn't find $30,000 to keep a rape crisis centre open, which exercised an unheard-of and ill-informed fiscal veto on extending parental leave, etc, etc ad nauseum.

To the pitiful events of last week catalogued by Casey and Damm, I would add the condemnation, by privileged white males, of a Maori woman as a traitor for expressing valid misgivings concerning Clark's candidacy for UN Secretary General.

All of this was in the back of my mind as I sat to watch again, for the first time in years, the first episode of the excellent American series, the Good Wife. In that episode the Alicia Florrick character is tasked with taking up the defense of an accused murderer whose first jury had deadlocked. In speaking to the jurors, she learned that there was actually only one holdout, a crazy cat lady type who simply liked the accused's lawyer, and that the five other jurors who eventually voted with her to acquit did so to get on with their lives.

So early this morning I found myself reflecting on the time I served on a jury in New Zealand, about ten years ago. It was a case of sexual assault, including rape. I've forgotten many details now and I'm sure the ones I remember distinctly reflect my own mindset and biases. I believe it is unlawful to discuss such details in a public forum anyway, so I will begin by conveying a few necessary bullet points.

The accused and his victim were new acquaintances. She and her friends (who were males) were invited to his house to continue drinking alcohol. They were invited to spend the night. The accused entered his guest's room at least twice, taking more liberties with her each time. Both testified; they had different and conflicting recollections of these events.

I believe both the trial and deliberations took a total of three to four days. I found it mildly disturbing; afterwards it took me a few days to shake off the bad feelings and get back to normal. I remember thinking what had happened seemed so common, the sort of thing that must transpire all the time. None of the people involved were particularly sympathetic. They were very young and had behaved very stupidly. We jurors engaged in some gallows-type humour behind closed doors to cope with the tawdriness of it all.

I felt that the accused had been morally wrong in his actions. However, we were tasked with evaluating whether the prosecution had met the burden of proof that he was guilty in a legal sense. Most of my fellow jurors were as conscientious as I. At one point I was the holdout juror, the only one who didn't want to vote to acquit. They helped me and we poured over the transcript. We didn't rush; no one pressured me; in fact, I felt my caution earned their respect. They wanted to be able to live with our decision too.

The accused had taken the stand and been questioned by the QC. As I recall, we felt the QC came close but failed to nail him. That was what it came down to for us. I was sorry we had to acquit, but I was in no doubt that the rules demanded we had to. To this day, I believe that as a group and as an individual, we had carried out our duty to the best of our ability. I hope the interruption to the accused's life, the shame from his parents knowing how he'd behaved, and his legal costs were punishment enough to prevent him ever offending again. He did seem frightened and I was glad.

The judge was a woman. She impressed me. Neither lawyer was especially remarkable. I recall very few men of working age in the jury pool that day, though I believe we had one or two on our jury. There were many young Asian women in the pool; the defense attorney rejected each presented as a potential juror so we had none in our group. We did have at least two elderly women; the sole contribution I remember from one of them was a remark that the victim should have laid back and enjoyed the sex. Fortunately, no other juror took that comment seriously and it was met with (shocked) silence.

Are there broader conclusions to be drawn from this experience? First, I don't know, but doubt in the wake of Kuggeleijn, whether anything has substantively changed in the way these trials are conducted. Clearly our adversarial system is flawed, perhaps when it comes to these he said-she said sex crimes most of all. We know how hard it is to secure convictions and that very few of these cases even proceed to trial, but I doubt we're ready to abandon the important principles that innocence is presumed and guilt must be proven to a rigorous standard in order to compensate for the inherent sexism and biases of the system.

Second, our attitudes to alcohol, specifically our permissiveness of indulging in it to the point that our judgment and our ability to keep ourselves safe are impaired, is the elephant in many of these (court) rooms. The police say it is a factor in one third of arrests. I do not believe any responsible citizen should ever drink so much that they put their life and safety and those of others in jeopardy.

Third, composition of juries is problematic. They are meant to be a jury of peers, but like voting, this is a civic obligation all too easily shirked. There were no men, and possibly no women, the accused's age among his jury. If some are raising, however tentatively, the notion that the elderly shouldn't vote, I would say their service on juries, which is both driven by a sense of civic duty but also in some cases to supplement their super, should be examined as well. Jury service, done conscientiously, demands solid mental faculties and physical and emotional resilience.

Finally, it was a missed opportunity that our verdict, necessary but inadequate, was the only permitted communication between us and the accused. I would have appreciated some way for us to express our repugnance at his actions and our moral, as well as our legal, judgment.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.