Juries, fair trials and documentaries about murderers: word vomit, by Leah

Hi, you know how my last post was essentially just word vomit? Well, I hope you liked it cos you got a whole lot more coming your way.

So, you know how everyone and their cat has been watching and talking about Netflix’s documentary, Making a Murderer? Well, guess who else watched it? Only not with my cats, they live with my parents. I’m still a bit sad about my now catless existence. Also the local pet rescue needs to stop tempting me with their leaflets about abandoned animals because I cannot have any of them! Anyway, I watched Making a Murderer, like so many of you have and like so many of you, I have thoughts and questions and want to know more and have a case review and all that business. So, I thought I would take to my own little corner of the internet to air those thoughts.

I actually researched this case and Avery’s previous one as part of a forensic science course I did a couple of years ago, we looked at the released evidence and though it is widely acknowledged that a lot of evidence was left out of the documentary (I’m assuming this is for time and narrative purposes rather than anything nefarious) the forensics that we looked at didn’t really seem adequate enough to me to convict someone without anything else concrete to back it up. From what I can remember, there was an unreliable test done on the blood sample that was found, which belonged to the suspect, but there wasn’t anything found from the victim and there was no evidence to suggest that the place had been cleaned to remove traces of DNA and some corrupted samples were submitted as evidence to the court as well, which is a bit of a no no. Basically, the whole thing was a shambles. But, I don’t intend to go through and pick it apart, I’m not an expert and I don’t work in forensics. I did it because I’m a nerd and that kind of thing interests me, besides, this isn’t going to be a OMG he’s guilty/innocent post. This is more of a I think we need to look at the justice system post, not just in America, but here in the UK and I say this because a few months ago, I did my civil duty and sat on a jury and honestly, I hope I never end up in court because from my experience, juries know nothing.

I think though, we can all agree that whether or not Avery and Dassey are the real murderers, how their case was handled was appalling. Why on Earth did a police force that was under investigation for a corrupt handling of his previous case  end up helping investigate the Halbach case? Why has it emerged that the jury had connections to the case? Why was so much of it allowed to be published in the media prior to going to court? Why was there so little hard forensic evidence? Why was a mentally challenged minor allowed to be interviewed without the presence of a parent or lawyer? Why was that testimony allowed to stand up in court? Why was no one told the meaning of the phrase REASONABLE DOUBT? Yeah, I have questions. The fact is though, they were convicted on somewhat flimsy evidence, but people have been convicted on less. It isn’t the police that do this, it isn’t the judge, it isn’t even the lawyers. It is random members of the public that choose whether or not someone goes to prison. (well, supposedly random, but let’s not go into that.)
Thankfully, when I did my jury service, I didn’t have to deal with anything too horrific, no one died and no one was assaulted. Obviously, when you sit on a jury, you can’t comment on the court proceedings or how you come to your decision. I want to talk a bit about my concerns about juries, but I’m not going to go into specifics, like I said, I don’t ever want to end up in court myself.

I can’t speak for how jury selections take place in other countries, but in the UK, people are selected at random from the electoral register, they go along to the court as requested and once there, are put into another pool, drawn out at random and taken to a court room where twelve of them are picked again at random, they get the chance to say whether or not they have a connection to the case, the defendant can get rid of one or two they don’t like and then that’s it, you’re sworn in and you are on a jury. While I think its a great idea to use people at random, I do worry about how this affects someone’s trial and based on the… I don’t want to say stupidity, but for want of a better word, stupidity of some of the people I met during my time, I think some sort of screening of jurors ought to be considered and especially if what is said about the Making a Murderer jury is to be believed.

On my first jury, all twelve of us were white and employed. While I’m not saying any of us are or were prejudice because of that or that it was the court’s fault that we all happened to be white and employed, there wasn’t exactly much diversity there. Maybe it’s the area that I live in, whatever. We were all presented with evidence without any basic legal knowledge being given to us or any explanation of what ‘reasonable doubt’ actually is. Then after being given all the evidence over the course of a week, we were sent to a room to discuss what we thought.
I can’t tell you what we discussed or how we came to our decisions and I’m going to be as vague as possible, so forgive me for that. What I am going to do though is list a few concerns that I had from being in that room. (Basically, if you’ve ever wondered what its like, it is exactly like 12 Angry Men. Like, for real. Only it was bloody freezing where I was because we had air con and it’s England).
Firstly, while we were introducing ourselves to each other and getting settled, two women had an argument about how to spell the word beans. Yes. Someone’s freedom was actually in our hands and that was what they chose to debate. Also, beans is not a difficult word to spell. If you have difficulty spelling the word beans and you think that a jury deliberation room is the appropriate place to bring it up, do you really think you’re fit to be deciding someone’s fate?
Another person on our jury didn’t understand what was meant by being innocent until proven guilty, because, and I quote, no one in the court room had specifically said the defendant was guilty so how were they supposed to say they were? (That is literally the point of being the jury, you decide! Again, should you really be allowed to make that decision if you do not understand the very basic principle of what the justice system is made up of?)
Two others didn’t understand the concept of reasonable doubt and another was so desperate to go to a business meeting that they shouted down everyone else’s opinions and used intimidating language and behaviour in an attempt to get a quick result. I am a fairly strong minded person and having done a bit of law at uni and also the afore mentioned forensics study, I kinda knew what was going on in front of me, but even so, I felt a bit uncomfortable being given this level of responsibility without a full understanding of how this evidence actually stood in the eyes of the law and with the behaviour of said juror. I stuck to my gut and said what I thought and didn’t budge from that decision when pressured, but I can’t speak for the others that were talked over and patronised. How do we know that they didn’t give in just to get the aggressive juror to leave them alone? If they didn’t agree with what was being said, but came to a majority decision anyway, is that fair? Is that good enough to convict someone? That is not what should happen in the deliberation room. Jurors are supposed to each voice their opinions based on the presented evidence and come to a unanimous or majority verdict. They are not supposed to have been influenced by the media, anyone outside the jury or each other. They are to each make up their mind, based on their thoughts, experiences and social standing from the information provided to them by the lawyers. It seems to me after appearing on a jury and then watching Making a Murderer that this isn’t always the case and if it isn’t always the case, is it wrong to convict someone?

I have always stood by the idea that if someone has been convicted then that is that, I wasn’t there, I don’t know what evidence was proposed, that decision is what was made and so there, convicted, guilty. Now that I’ve been in that room and listened to the evidence, I know that my decisions were based on what was given to me at the time and I stand by them, however, having been part of the deliberation process and seeing the way in which some jurors behaved towards each other and their lack of understanding as to what they were even doing there, I’m not so sure that being convicted necessarily makes you guilty. Avery and Dassey were convicted, the documentary shows them in a favourable light designed to make people question the validity of their case and to be suspicious of the police department, but regardless, they were convicted and deemed guilty. Everyone has to stand by that until such time as the case is reexamined or more evidence comes to light and they return to trial, the documentary can’t tell us what actually happened, neither can the defendants. Yes, from what we have been shown, it was an unfair trial which should never have been allowed to stand, but whatever questions we have are likely to go unanswered. What the documentary does do well is it opens up the ideas of how evidence is gathered and presented and how juries are selected and I think we can all agree that these things need some serious changes. Judicial systems are different in every country, I’m told the UK doesn’t have any money at the moment. I don’t want to make this political, so I’ll just leave that statement there. As such, we can’t really afford to do any major overhauling of the way in which the justice system works, but it does need looking at. When you consider how full the prisons are and how many times people like Ronnie Kray avoided going to prison because he was matey with the home secretary, there are definite needs for reform. I’m not clever enough to know how best to tackle this problem and this is a bit of a shout into the void. Either way, I think the best place to start would be with the people actually convicting defendants, the jury.
I think that juries should be selected at random, but it needs to be random. I would say that the Avery jury was not. There needs to be more diversity on those juries, there needs to be some sort of screening process so that those people are actually capable of understanding the seriousness of what they’re doing and how to do it and I think it would be helpful if jurors are sat down with an advisor of some sort who can explain what reasonable doubt is, how evidence is presented and what to do with it. If there are any points of law you need to consider, the judge tells you before you’re sent off into the little room. It would be a bit more useful to have this sort of information to begin with, so you don’t already make up your mind about something before fully understanding what it means.

Eurgh this is getting a bit too long now.
TL:DR Making a Murderer is a brilliant documentary, it’s incredibly well put together and it has done what great documentaries do, get people talking. Maybe the defendants are guilty and exactly where they need to be, either way, hopefully, from having documentaries like this, we can ensure that future cases are conducted better and that trials are fairer. Also, I hope if you ever have to do jury service that you take a good book with you and that it isn’t too traumatic for you. Basically, you spend a lot of time sitting around in silence, which is why I read so many books in September! If you’ve been selected for jury duty and you’re also overwhelmed by the lack of clear information provided for you in your summons (yes, you are literally summoned without much explanation of what you are expected to bring with you or what to do or where to even really go once you are in the court), feel free to ask, its all still fresh in my mind!

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One thought on “Juries, fair trials and documentaries about murderers: word vomit, by Leah

  1. Pingback: January Round-up. | The Perks of Being a Bookworm

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