A few weeks by, I blogged about the experience of being summoned but not balloted for jury duty in the High Court in Glasgow. As you might expect, there were one or two details I couldn't include in that sketch. The nature of the indictment. The involuntarily amusing moment when the first police witness told the court that, on his arrest, the second accused had uttered, spontaneously and unprompted, "well that's it, the game's up".
While it isn't inconceivable that a talented advocate might offer a persuasive, innocent interpretation of that remark, it isn't the easiest brief in the world. It didn't help that this somewhat ropey-looking character had just been pried from a car crammed with material subsequently revealed to be class A drugs. From the get-go, his not guilty plea didn't look likely to prosper. And so it seems to have proved. Although the Daily Record report is a little unclear, both of the main co-accused have now either been convicted or entered late guilty pleas further into the proceedings, owning up to distributing large quantities of illegal drugs in Dumfries and Galloway and beyond.
As an unballoted juror, one aspect of the case that was of particular interest to me was the "googling factor". The phenomenon of jurors conducting independent internet research on the accused is one of increasing salience and concern to the justice system. The first googling juror seems to have been prosecuted and jailed during 2011 in the UK. In 2013, a juror in England was jailed for six months for contempt of court having googled the accused, discovered his past convictions, and told her colleagues who promptly dobbed her in. In his opening remarks to the jury in this case, Lord Kinclaven underlined the point several times that the fifteen men and women should not trawl online for evidence of the past misdeeds of those in the dock (or for the matter, of witnesses whose evidence they consider).
The basic legal rationale for this ban is that jurors should decide the case on the evidence led and tested in court: not on some tabloid hack's biased summary of the matter. With the criminal justice system's repeat players, there's also a risk of disclosing past convictions if jurors go spelunking in the paper record. Certain clear limits are imposed on the prosecution's ability to lead evidence of the accused's bad character or past bad acts in court. The classic defence of these constraints is that the prejudicial influence of adducing evidence of prior convictions outweighs its probative value.
Does ten prior convictions for flashing make it more likely that you flashed this particular grandmother in Uplawmoor on or around 2.00pm on Christmas Eve last year? Maybe. But if you knew the person in the dock had this record of public wang-waggling behind him, would you be more inclined towards convict him, even if the evidence adduced by the authorities was shooglier than it ought to be? It's a serious possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, so we try to insulate juries from this kind of information.
As it happens, the High Court case I brushed against is an excellent example of the importance of putting the fear of god (or at least, of the judge and google) into jurors' hearts. Having been discharged from service, curious, I popped the two main co-accused's names into the search engine revealing - yes you guessed it - several eminently prejudicial press reports of their recent convictions for a rich catalogue of essentially analogous drugs offences. To be convicted once for dealing heroin in large quantities in south Scotland may be regarded as a misfortune, but twice and thrice?
Although I probably ought to know better, unbidden, my mind leapt pretty quickly to the conclusion that the pair of them were more or less banged to rights and any explanation they might give would have to be phenomenally good to get them out of it. After a day or two, it seems that at least one of them came to the same conclusion. Little good it will likely do him, mind you, given that a guilty plea at this late stage does nothing to mitigate the costs for the justice system, when no fewer than eight advocates are briefed and ready to perform and the jury has been empanelled and heard evidence.
Happily, the liberty of these men did not depend on my tainted judgement. But it is a salient example of just how easy, prejudicial and tempting it can be for the lay juror to compromise their objectivity in deciding on the guilt or innocence of folk in the dock.