Monday, April 02, 2007

Jury Service / Ticket to Rye

Jury Service

Image of jury in the movie Twelve Angry Men

Hove must be the best place on earth to do jury service. I have spent the last two weeks at the seaside, courtesy of Her Majesty.

Of course I have been sitting in court, as judge of the facts of two serious sexual cases. But Crown Court hours being generous, it has not been an onerous task. Obviously it would be utterly inappropriate - and possibly illegal - for me to write about my deliberations as a juror. However, I will say what an interesting and inspiring experience it has been.

Image of picture of face on a wall in Brighton, UK You are called to jury service. It is your public duty, and, even if you wanted to, it would not easy to excuse yourself. I rolled up at 9am at the court, having enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the cafe round the corner and dropped down to the promenade to take the sea air.

It was an idyllic March day, with bright sunshine and mountainous waves on the sea. Beautiful! After passing through security, being taken up to the jurors' room (which is like a school staffroom) and shown a video about court procedure, we were kindly released till midday.

Image of Meeting Place cafe, Brighton and Hove, UK Down by the sea again, it was fantastic. I enjoyed a strawberry ice cream at the Meeting Place Cafe - rarely has an ice tasted so delicious - and chatted to a mother and her grown-up daughter who runs a Brighton nightclub. All very pleasant. Back at base, I was selected to serve in a jury for a trial estimated to last three days. An hour's evidence was heard - and then it was time for a good, hearty lunch.

There was a little bit of evidence in the afternoon, and we went home at 4pm. All these breaks gave me time to keep in touch with work, monitor my email and write various Day-Job documents as well as edit images, write my blog, read poetry and work on a couple of poems of my own.

Crashing Brighton waves

It was stormy overnight and Day Two of the trial brought inclement weather. But as I was walking down the seafront on the way to the court, admiring a yacht that had blown over, the sky started to clear and the sun peeped out. On the second day, some of the jurors started to chat a bit about the case - in between discussing the weather and the like. We began in a small way to work together.

I asked a question of the judge, pertaining to a piece of evidence in a diary, and the defence counsel continued to make lame jokes that no one laughed at and used, in my view, inappropriate terms such as 'ga-ga' and 'away with the fairies' about the mentally ill, causing some disquiet among the jurors. Rumpole of the Bailey he was not!

The judge generously gave us two hours for lunch, so I gorged myself on Brighton's finest fish and chips in seafront fish restaurant. Naturally, our court finished again at four.

My mind was drawn to the one and only time I had previously visited that particular crown court building - in 1998 covering the 'Hairgate' case of my mate Jason's then girlfriend, for the Mail on Sunday. I was working for that respectable Sunday newspaper at the time and had brought the story of a girl allegedly maimed at a Brighton hairdresser's to their attention.

Jason, who seems to pop up surprisingly often in my blog and is now drifting around India sending me the occasional vulgar email, approached me with a view to selling his then girlfriend's hair nightmare story. She ended up winning about 20 grand in compensation in court and getting paid still more money by the Mail on Sunday, which was fair considering what she had been through.

My recollections of that affair nine years are rather sketchy. I remember staying in a 15-quid-a-night bed and breakfast with Jason and Lisa, making copious shorthand notes in court (as is my practice), and then getting rather drunk with the delighted couple and their legal team down the road at the Brunswick Arms when she won and was awarded record damages for a hairdressing accident. Then I doorstepped the hair salon staff who were far less happy to see me (and eventually gave me a statement penned by their solicitor).

Three Day of the trial was interesting with the tapes of the defendant's police interviews being played. The jury started to gell a little and I gently floated the idea of me being their foreman.

It was warm and sunny outside and the judge kindly gave us all the afternoon off, allowing me to have a good lunch at the Meeting Place (where they really must find a better system for telling diners their food is ready) and to catch up with my day-job work. Coincidentally I was phoned with an offer of another interview, although the job was nowhere near as good as the first.

The weather was even better on Day Four of the trial: out on the beach I saw a girl in a bikini; skateboarders had their tops off. The judge had asked us to arrive at the unconscionably early hour of 10am. I could hardly open my eyes with exhaustion!

I missed my train and almost walked into Her Majesty The Queen at Brighton Station (she was visiting with her husband HRH Prince Philip). I then had to jog along the seafront in my suit, arriving in the jury room bathed in sweat on the stroke of ten. We did not get called till 10.25am, so I should not have worried.

I found that morning's evidence so appalling, it seemed almost unbearable at times, although I was pleased that my question from Day One resurfaced on the lips of one of the barristers. I actually began to feel sorry for the defence brief as I listened to his client's extraordinary testimony.

The highlight came when the defendant accused the perfectly reasonable prosecuting barrister of being a 'pervert' - simply because he had used to word 'sex'! This outrageous slur got the defendant a sharp rebuke from the judge. His Honour, who seems a thoroughly good egg, even had the court cleared. I chanced upon him later in the corridor and he wished me a pleasant lunch.

Image of silhouetted man on bench at Hove seatfront, UK

And so I did, down at the seafront at the other Hove cafe, in brilliant sunshine. All was right with the world as I ate my tuna-filled baked potato and took some photographs with my Nikon FM and 135mm lens. The afternoon session seemed, if anything, more disturbing than the morning's.

The defence barrister's speech was again laced with phrases such as 'ga-ga', 'away with the fairies', 'lost her marbles', and and the title of the popular song, 'I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No'. (The woman involved was in her seventies!) What good he thought this was going to do his client is hard to adjudge. In my view there was an air of desperation about it.

After complaining about the lack of a kettle in the jurors' room, the jury called it a day - happy in the knowledge that our deliberation was nigh. Walking back down the prom, I bought a secondhand copy of Selected Poems of William Blake.

Day Five dawned overcast but soon brightened up. I missed the train again and arrived on the stroke of 10am. The judge's summing up was superbly done. I checked everything he said against my verbatim shorthand note. It was entirely balanced and accurate. There was no doubt in my mind the defendant was getting an utterly fair trial.

The judge had also had typed out a summation of the law relating to the case which was very helpful. At around 11.30am, the court bailiffs were sworn, to guard over our jury room, and we the jury were asked to retire.

We spent the first 10 minutes making teas and coffees, visiting the en suite toilet, and generally readying ourselves. Then I was honoured to be elected Foreman of the jury and we studied our notes for 10 minutes. I read out the indictments and the judge's legal crib sheet, and our deliberations began.

It would be wrong to disclose them, suffice to say I was incredibly impressed by the maturity of the discussion and the mutual respect shown by the jurors. The meeting was a joy to chair. In less than an hour, initial differences of view had been resolved, and I was writing a note to the judge saying we had reached verdicts unanimously on both counts. He was hearing an appeal so we were broke out lunch.

I was impressed by the amount of food and refreshments we had all brought with us. The jury room table was groaning under the weight of the sandwiches, fresh fruit, avocado, puddings and soft drinks.

It was a veritable picnic. We talked about all sorts of subjects unconnected with the case after I had sent our note to the judge. There was a lot of joking and laughter. Raucous laughter. One woman juror even confessed to fancying the judge! I quipped: 'Would you like me to send him another note to arrange a date?'

When we went back in, I was surprised (although I should not have been) by the level of tension and drama in the courtroom. The prosecuting counsel looked at me, trying to read my face, as I walked to the end of the front row to stand nearest to the judge (as the foreman is supposed to).

The court bailiff asked me to stand and answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question of whether we had reached our verdict. I answered, 'yes'. Then, just he asked me to answer 'Guity' or 'Not guilty' to the question of how we had found the defendent on the first charge.

I resisted the Tourettesque temptation to shout out: 'Sex!', but, for dramatic effect, I left a couple of beats between his question and my loud and clear answer of 'Guilty'. He asked again on the second (and lesser) charge and again I answered immediately: 'Guilty'.

Image of the ruins of the second Brighton Pier

I looked at the defendant. He looked shrunken. His barrister also appeared to be demoralised, no longer the jovial jester, although I suspect the verdict had come as no surprise to him. Anything else would have been an extraordinary triumph of optimism over reality. The judge thanked us for our work on a 'difficult' case. And so we were released back into the outside world.

In my opinion we had been a top jury. We had taken our public duty seriously and not shirked our responsibilities or plumped for the easy option. One guy, a tiler by trade, said he had been waking at 4am every day, thinking and worrying about the case. We had all in different ways done what we could to discern the truth of the matter.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day outside. I walked down the prom and took a picture of the spectacular, turquoise sea. I wandered down further and had a lager at the Man of War seafront pub (built like an inverted ship), went into town and bought a Clash CD for a fiver, and then visited the pier where I am currently writing this part of this blog, in Horatio's pub, while enjoying a lager.

Image of Brighton Pier from the seafront

The first week of jury service has been a fabulous break, but I still had masses of day-job work, interview preparation and poetry composition to do. On the way back, I dropped into the Amnesty secondhand bookshop and picked up a copy of As A Blackwoman - Maud Sulter, Poems 1982 - 1985. It is rather different from the Byron, Keats and Larkin that I usually read. I like it though.

Back at the Lewes Garret, a great deal of effort was being put into milking a silver birch tree of its sap with a view to making birch sap wine. My Beloved had made various incisions into the bark of the tree, to distract sap using tubes, pegs, syringes or sticks.

A friend across the road is desperate to fill a demi-john with silver birch sap so she get started on the production of the birch sap wine as soon as possible. I decided not to comment, interfere or get involved in this particular endeavour.

At the weekend I prepared for my interviews (sparing a few minutes to update Oliver's Poetry with Meat Elegy and the lady I met in the park in Leamington's Personality Disorder.

On Saturday evening I went to see the harrowing movie Babel, which I would not recommend. In my sleep I had a nightmare featuring Dominic Lawson who has regularly haunted my dreams ever since I worked with him at the Sunday Telegraph 10 years ago.

I hardly slept on Sunday night. When I did, I suffered terrible nightmares, awaking depressed and exhausted (although with an idea for a poem).

Day Six of jury service was bright. I felt shite. What a day! I arrived late but it did not matter; we sat around all morning in the jurors' waiting room. I tried to work but my concentration was shot. I ended up talking to the idle tiler about his aspirations to become a traffic warden (he felt he would relish the aggro but not the hours).

I started to think that being a juror is the equivalent of putting me on a super-powerful dose of a truth drug. I ended up telling the other jurors all kinds of outrageous and entirely inappropriate things about my former career in journalism. The urge to entertain is dangerously strong in me.

Image of girl jogger at the seafront, Hove, UK

At lunchtime, a whole gang of us ended up having lunch at a seafront cafe. They were a jolly crew, including several from the previous week's jury and a South African woman who said she had quaffed almost two bottles of red wine on an empty stomach the night before.

Nonetheless I felt really down at heart, although I desperately tried not to let it show. I consoled myself with the thought that on that morning's train to Brighton I had made progress with my Girl With One-Track Girl poem, stranglely informed partly by observing events at the previous evening at a salsa club in Lewes.

At the courts, I failed to be selected (by a one in seven chance) for an assault trial. But, horror of horrors, I was selected as Juror Number One for a sex trial which was even grimmer than the previous weeks. I spent the afternoon - in a jury of nine women and three men - feeling queasy listening to the stomach-churning evidence.

On Day Seven I had a job interview at the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall on London. Because of the trial, I had persuaded my interviewers to do it at 6pm.

The day was overcast with the sea as calm as a mill pond. Like a mirror, as if you could have walked on it. I began to find jury service trying (excuse the pun).

I was thinking of my interview and struggling to think of what further research I could usefully do. I had awoken at 3.30am riddled with angst. We were late starting and adjourned soon to allow a 'vulnerable' witness to leave the court without being seen by the defendant.

Strangely this supposely short break turned into the entire morning when the judge unexpectedly decided to do the sentencing of a previously heard case.

Waiting around is part and parcel of jury service. The hours are easy and the legal profession seems adept at spinning out three-day trials to fill a week. The idea of working through lunch or extending the end of the working day, as happens so frequently in business, is anaethma to them.

Down at Lawns cafe at the seafront, I reflected on the seedy side of Hove; the grotty basement bedsits, rusting outside fire escapes, flaking paint and dog shit-besmirched pavements. All so unappealing, set against the undeniable beauty of the glassy sea.

The avuncular judge had finished the day's business half an hour early (at 3.30pm) to allow me a good start to my interview, which I thought was jolly decent of him. So I was on time.

The meeting was in a room in the Institute of Directors, on Pall Mall. The last time I had been in that room was after I had been let go by a shitty City PR agency, shortly after 9/11.

As part of my acrimonious severage package, I was expected to knock up a marketing report on a multi-national client of that particular firm. I spent a couple of days researching it and a day writing it. I had met the PR firm's vice-chairman - a grease-bubble of a man - at the Institute of Directors to hand over what I had hastily written!

(I believe the PR company charged the client 25 grand for my work!!!) To my astonishment he said how good he thought it was. It only made me despise him all the more. When we parted, I said: 'I shall never see you again.' And I never have.

The interview was more pleasant than that occasion, although I was distressed to hear the process would involve me coming in another three times (if invited). Taking four days' holiday to attend interviews or psychometric tests for a middle-management job is a huge ask!

I am sure my expression betrayed my true feelings about this. Prospective employers often demand too much time of candidates and, consequently, miss out on many of the better candidates. Besides, I was appalled my interviewer could not announce the name 'Sharon'!

Day Eight of jury service was blisteringly hot. You could come on holiday to Hove and Brighton in August and not get weather as good as I have had thusfar in March.

I awoke with the horrible feeling that I had asked too many incisive questions last night and found out more than I needed to about the job for which I was applying (correctly as it turned out - I didn't get a second interview).

Image of sailing boats on Brighton seafront, UK It is that old quandary: power vs. money. Do you take a cut in your power and influence for a hike in salary? I never know the answer to that one. A poet should not have to worry about such earthly matters.

I also had a hangover after glugging two cans of ciders on the train back from my interview and then having two cans of Guinness ('bicycle fuel' as last week's defendant had called it) at home. It was a good evening but now I am paying the price.

That day's evidence was particularly gruelling. With the red-red-wine juror at lunchtime, I sat a seafront cafe pondering life. In the afternoon I was elected foreman again. No one else had an appetite for it in this case.

Image of wrecked remains of the second pier in Brighton and Hove, UK

To be frank, I didn't either but thought I probably had the strength to see it through. All the same the atmosphere in the jury room was jovial. The 'supermodel' juror had been reading the horoscope in the Daily Mail.

After I asked everyone their names, someone suggested we do the same for star signs. It was interesting to see that the people with the same star signs were seated next to each other. Two Libras side by side, two Leos, two jurors on the cusp of Sagitarius and Capricorn (me included).

We needed that brief spell of levity. Hearing the evidence revisited in the judge's excellent and equitable summing up was grim indeed.

After we adjourned at four, I walked down the seafront in brilliant sunshine. The beach was full of sun-lovers. I sat down at a bar and had a couple of beers whilst chatting to an Irish law graduate (not about the case of course) - but about Ireland and especially Veronica Guerin. The sun set on an extraordinary March day. I took some pictures.

Day Nine: Judgment Day. Once again we had to step up to the plate and do our duty. I had packed a lot of sandwiches and avocado (in case it went pear-shaped). I was expecting a long haul in the jury room.

The day started foggy but soon started to clear up, the sun edging its way through. I had awoken in pain from my back (usual), my mind full of anxiety about the case, my next job interview, how I had handled the last one (too frankly), and my current job. Life is such a minefield.

I was expecting a tough time in deliberation, and began to regret offering to take up the cudgels as foreman. Questions such as whether The Bill used to screen on Saturday morning (and whether we should be overly worried about it) troubled me.

I seemed to recall from my days as the Daily Star's TV Editor that there had been a Saturday omnibus of this great cop soap, but surely the police, Crown Prosecution Service or legal teams should have bottomed out such an eminently checkable fact as this? I was rather hoping this would be my last day of jury service.

The jury sat down to consider its verdict at around 11am, after a very brief address by the judge. Again, it would be wrong for me to say what transpired after that. Suffice to say, it was the most difficult meeting I have ever chaired. A monumental battle between opposing points of view.

After what seemed an eternity, we were called back into court as a result of the juror with a figure like a supermodel sending a note to the judge (as she was absolutely entitled to do). His Honour quickly answered that query. Then, to my shock, I was asked as jury foreman to deliver the verdicts so far.

I basically refused, saying: 'Do I have to respond at this juncture? I don't think it would be helpful.' (I really did not think it would be a good idea).

The judge - a hell of decent chap - consulted briefly with the defence barrister and let me off the hook, after saying we could now deliver 10-2 majority verdicts on all counts.

And so we were soon back in the hothouse battling it out. There seemed to be food and drinks everywhere on the jury room table. Most of us had long given up paying the 30p requested by the court for using one of their tea bags and hot water (it was a darn cheek of them to charge deliberating jurors at all, in my view).

Image of postbox and view down to the sea from the Crown Court in Hove, UK

The deliberations seemed to be going on forever. At times I was convinced we were heading for a retrial. It felt as if we were replaying the trial, with, at my request, jurors putting the cases for prosecution and defence, as they saw it, and reading out pieces of evidence from their notes, which I checked against my shorthand note of the trial.

We eventually reached 10-2 majority verdicts on eight of the 10 charges, clearing the defendant on the other two, where there was more far more doubt in the minds of the jurors. The relief was enormous. I believe we all felt we had done our job well.

When we traipsed back into court, you could have cut the atmosphere with a toothpick. When I was asked to stand to deliver the verdicts and said 'Not Guilty' to the first charge, there was some reaction from the defendant's new lover. But, sadly for her, eight of the remaining nine charges were 'Guilty'. The convicted man closed his eyes. He looked to me like a man who had taken a big gamble - and lost.

I had not a shadow of doubt of his guilt on eight of the 10 counts, and at the end of the deliberations, nine of the other 11 jurors had felt the same way. That said, I admired the other two for sticking to their guns.

They truly believed they could not convict on the evidence they had heard. We all parted on the best of terms, shaking hands, slapping backs, with huge respect for each other. I bought a band of jurors a drink at the Brunswick as we wound down from what had proved an ordeal. I felt proud of my jury and the professional way in which they had conducted themselves.

Image of sunset over wrecked second pier in Brighton and Hove, UK

Indeed the whole experience had been an amazing one. I spent four years around Crown Courts in the eighties when I was a local newspaper reporter in Hull and Coventry. At that time I was left a little dubious about the ability of juries to reach the right verdict, particularly when it came to convicting guilty men who had hired talented defence barristers.

My fortnight in Hove has restored my faith in the jury system. As the avuncular judge had said after thanking us: 'You have been the judges of fact.'

Ticket To Rye (Flashback to Thursday, 22 December 2005)

My birthday! I am 44 - a number I instinctively like.

I have celebrated by going for a very pleasant luncheon in a smart hotel in Rye. I don't mind being 44. I am gradually getting used to the idea of middle age.

Last year I went to Eastbourne for my birthday and I wrote the poem Birthday. I guess I don't feel any different now. Only more resigned!

From one of the secondhand for which Rye is renowned, I bought a lovely thin volume of John Betjeman's poems. One is about death in Leamington Spa.

For tea I ate the various seafood we had bought a fisherman's seasfront stall. Delicious! I am a tad drunk - and happy. Yes, happy.

Labels: , , , ,