back to article Judge says tech-addled jurors undermine justice

After years of complaints that judges may not always be in touch with the modern world, one judge hit back last week by suggesting that younger jury members may be too conditioned by technology to give defendants a fair trial. Worse, they are so used to doing their own research online that they have wrecked several major trials …

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  1. James
    Paris Hilton

    Who would you want to be tried by?

    This all seems pretty simple to me, just consider if you were accused of some crime and had to face trial.

    If innocent, I would hate, and I mean really HATE to be tried by a jury. I do not believe for a second that they would be impartial. I want to be tried by a judge, someone who has shown intelligence to get where he is and has proven himself to be a good judge of evidence.

    On the other hand, if I was guilty, bring on the jury. Hopefully they won't have a clue.

    As a simple demonstration, approximately 50% of Americans reject ALL evidence and conclude that the world is 6000 years old. Granted thats the loony bin on the other side of the pond, but it just shows you what value evidence has with some people.

    Paris cos she's impartial.

  2. Mike Moyle Silver badge
    Boffin

    Collecting evidence

    The problem of the juror going out and collecting his own evidence (either in person or via the net) seems to be missed by some.

    Any evidence collected (physical evidence, forensics, depositions, etc.), by either side in a case, requires two things:

    1 - a clear chain of custody such that it can be shown unequivocally that the evidence has not been altered in any way since it was collected, or that any alterations made (a snip from a piece of material for chemical testing, say) are clearly noted, and;

    2 - Full disclosure is made by both sides to each other so that each side can be prepared on the day of the trial to answer to that evidence. It is impermissible, for instance, for the police to present evidence at the trial that the defendant's attorney has not had time to prepare a defense against.

    Both of these qualifications allow for the trial to proceed on as level a field as possible.

    Evidence collected by a juror violates both of these requirements, since neither side has had opportunity to vet the source and relevance of the evidence, nor had opportunity to prepare to answer to it.

    Further, jurors are, theoretically, expected to form no opinion on a case until all evidence has been presented (unlikely as that is in reality, it is, nonetheless, the attitude that they are supposed to be cultivating.) and collecting evidence, even if only to have further questions answered implies a violation of that criterion for a fair and impartial trial, as well as violating the evidentiary rules.

    In short, it's a really, REALLY dumb move by someone who clearly thinks that he's the smartest guy in the room (and we KNOW how well THAT usually turns out!)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    This is not a jury of my peers - they are all common citizens...

    If you can identify the source of the title you are as geeky as I....

  4. Steven Jones

    @fraser

    "It is most certainly not the job of a juror to go away and do a little research, with the possible exception of if there is some sort of formal exam at the end of this piece of research. Call it a law degree if you will. ;)"

    That's a classic "argument from authority" (as is your IT support argument - surprise, surprise I also have worked in IT and for a long time - anecdotes about the damage caused by those with a little knowledge can equally be counteracted with the damage done by the completely naive computer user - or even being able to discuss problems with them).

    Anyway, I think I ought to point out that a law degree qualifies people in the law. It doesn't in itself qualify them in statistics, science, finance, forensics, psychology or a whole host of other technical subjects. In particular, becoming a barrister makes you an advocate. It trains and picks out those that can use tools of persuasion, like emotional arguments, the subtle undermining of credibility of witnesses, dealing in spurious certainties and the like. Successful barristers are something like legally trained actors - knowing how to deal with people in the context of the court's arcane laws. It's no coincidence that government and the top echelons of industry are stuffed to the gills with lawyer/advocates; people who know how to manipulate and persuade. Tony Blair, a man of somewhat limited intellectual capability, was a superb advocate and manipulator of people (if you doubt, that, read the hatchet job that Robert Harris did on him in the scarcely disguised portrait of Blair in his book Ghost).

    But back to the possibly even more pernicious subject of expert witnesses. They too often plea the "argument from authority" position. These are not theoretical concerns - one of those (the Sally Clarke and like cases) I've already mentioned. Another example is the disgraceful case of Shirley McKie, a policewoman wrongly accused of perjury. The case hinged totally on expert witnesses from the Scottish Criminal Record Office testifying that her thumbprint was found at a murder scene. The police had been keen on eliminating unidentified prints as it provided a potential line of defence for the accused. As is routine in these cases, the prints were all checked against serving officers, and this thumbprint was identified as belonging to Shirley McKie, a policewoman who had been in the area. However, on being challenged, she maintained that she had not entered the house. Not only was she sacked by the police force, she was prosecuted for perjury in 1999. The most pertinent point here, was that the "expert witnesses" from the Scottish Criminal Record Office flawed identification of the thumbprint was defended on the grounds that they were the experts, and mere laymen would not be able to appreciate their years of skills. In fact it was no such thing - the basis of finger print matching is fairly straightforward and, for a large part, is a matter of judgment and not science. The basic criteria are not defined statistically in a truly objective way - it's a game of probabilities, especially with partial prints. In this case it was clear to all that the finger print matching was highly uncertain once the basic principles of the process were established (and it was no small thing - three witnesses from the Scottish Criminal Record Office all testified the same). This case is to be subject to a public enquiry, such are the implications.

    Back to IT. We might also look at all the false convictions (and the suicides) following the highly flawed "Operation Ore" said to have identified thousands of users of child porn in the UK. Many people were convicted (and even more had lives destroyed) by accusation, and what is worse, cases that went through courts on faulty expert analysis. Again the line from the prosecutors was an "Argument from authority" one - that the expert's view was sacrosanct and a mere layman (which include the lawyers) couldn't be expected to understand the logic. Trust me - I'm an expert was the line.

    So I rest my case. Of course IT people make crap advocates, so I don't expect this to sway any jury. I don't believe that that most lawyers make great seekers of truth. It is just not an analytical subject in the sense that a scientist would recognise. Indeed most scientists are not favoured by lawyers as expert witness - they tend to be too measured and apply too many caveats. Lawyers prefer the type of scientist-expert witness that has a clear view, a theory, a line that they will argue. Eventually the some of the worst of these "scientific" zealouts get found out, but only after huge damage has been done to people and lives. Without educated people who can analyse what they are told, then we are lost.

    Out best defense is an educated (and self-educating) populace, but I will readily admit that in a world which will listen to the crack-pot views of Prince Charles, that the average jury might not contain many such people.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Judge Judge

    still doesn't beat Major Major Major Major.

  6. Henry Wertz Gold badge

    Police motivations

    "...but I'm very tired of having the state force me to lose countless days of revenue just to listen to some perp lie to me (I'm not pro-government per se, but I fail to see the police's motivation for picking a guy at random and prosecuting him for nothing)."

    *Probably* the "perp" is just trying to BS their way out of a charge. But sure there's police motivations to do this, at least here in the US.

    Motivations for police to pick a random guy:

    1) Revenue generation. If crime stats are high, police get more money to fight crime. And police look successful for "catching the criminal." They also get direct revenue from fines. The police in Iowa City will wait until 2AM when bars let out, round people up as they walk out of the bars and take them in for public drunkenness... the Daily Iowan (student newspaper) sent people out to the bars absolutely sober and had them step out at 2. They were without exception charged with public drunkenness. "Most" of the people coming out at 2 are probably drunk as hell, so the police just don't even check. If they object that they haven't had a drop, they are additionally charged with resisting arrest. The police make sacks of money from all these people paying off these fines.

    2) Fraud. Some places have unconstitutional laws allowing police to seize cars and houses from people for drug offences, before they've gone to trial. Police know this, some departments are corrupt and have been using this law to steal people's property.

    3) "Wrong place at the wrong time". In high-crime areas, the police WILL just round people up and assume they are there to do get in a gang fight, buy a prostitute or buy drugs. You couldn't POSSIBLY be there to visit someone, or driving through, oh no. So they'll trump up some charges.

    4) Mistakes. Police are people too, they make mistakes! They could get a description for a criminal, see someone that matches the description pretty closely near buy and get the wrong guy, to name one.

  7. Anonymous Hero

    motivations

    To add to Henry Wertz' list.

    5) Grudge. They don't like you. That could be for any number of reasons.

    6) Prejudice. Driving while black is the classic example.

    7) Covering up. This kind of falls under mistakes too, but once they've made a mistake, sometimes it's easier to run with it than admit it was a mistake.

    But probably even more common than these is when they don't pick a "random" guy, but someone they're pretty sure is a "bad" guy. They just unfortunately don't have any proper evidence. How tempting it must be to make some up.

  8. RW
    Go

    Technicalities

    Whenever evidence is rejected "on a technicality" it's because the plods took some kind of shortcut. There's almost always an alternative method that would have rendered the same evidence admissible.

    And supposing you do start overlooking "technicalities"? Where do you draw the line? Is it a technicality when the plods break into your house without a warrant to search for evidence?

    It's just like Bush and his illicit wiretapping. There was a special court established specifically to hear requests for warrants to do so, but no, the cowboys couldn't be bothered with going through channels.

    I'm all in favor of rejecting evidence on technicalities, esp. when the learned judge tears the coppers new assholes for failing to do their job properly. Keeps them on their toes.

    Remember the old adage, better a hundred criminals go free than one innocent be punished.

  9. Red Bren
    Paris Hilton

    Selectively dumb

    Isn't the way that juries (in the UK) are selected part of the problem?

    What percentage of the population attempt to get out of jury duty and how are they distributed across social groups? I suspect that the jury pool is deprived of "smarter" members of society through self-deselction by people who think it is beneath them.

    When the jury for a trial is being selected from this limited pool, are the prosecution and defence teams more likely to reject the thinkers, in favour of jurors that can be swayed by emotional appeals?

    In the same way that we get the governments we deserve when failing to vote, do we get the juries we deserve by excluding ourselves from the pool? Perhaps both should be compulsory (with the option of abstaining)

  10. Keith T
    Stop

    People are doing jobs in courts that they lack the qualifications for.

    Trials are based on orality: "If someone in authority or from the upper classes says it, it must be true."

    It is a shame when an ordinary juror has to ask the relevant questions to determine guilt of innocence.

    Clearly, with all the unsafe convictions and over-turned verdicts we know about the current assignment of duties is not working.

    People are doing jobs in courts that they lack the qualifications for.

    1. Judges and lawyers don't have the psychological, scientific and engineering background to understand what questions to ask to determine the circumstances and to check for lying or exaggeration.

    2. Judges and lawyers don't have the background to understand what follow-up questions to ask.

    3. Judges and lawyers don't have the social backgrounds to be aware of the common knowledge that the public has, that you cannot trust police to tell the truth under oath.

    So jurors want to fill the gap.

    But the unqualified judges and lawyers get upset.

    Instead of being upset, judges and lawyers should expand their educational horizons. Learn what they need to know to do their jobs.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Unhappy

    General knowledge

    There was a trial where prosecution and defence disagreed about whether it would be possible to slip a packet of cocaine under the driver's seat of a Sunbeam Alpine, and the mechanical process by which the seat could be raised in order to look for it. A simple, factual point that would have cast doubt on one or other of the sides' testimony. It was a two-day trial, but neither side brought in any further evidence to bolster or refute that point. Suppose one of the jurors had had hands-on experience? As it was, it seems that they didn't - they failed to reach a verdict.

    No, jurors shouldn't turn sleuth. But if, say, you are a combustion chemistry specialist, and the prosecution cite a value for, say, the flash point of diesel that is wildly inaccurate, and the defence don't challenge it, what should you do?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wannabe Sherlock Holmes

    It isn't the job of any jury member to think they are Sherlock Holmes and go off on a mission but it should be the job of the court to clearly explain what the job of the jury is. Is there anyone here who can say from experience that the courts actually do that? Do the courts police the conduct of jurors in their deliberations?

    A family friend with several years' experience of working in the CPS is convinced beyond any persuasion that there are many criminals gone free because of "slimy defence barristers and senile, incompetent judges" (their words, not mine). Is there a competence framework against which judges are assessed?

    I've yet to be asked to serve on a jury in the 18 years or so since becoming eligible.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Legal Profession

    Are all just a great big bunch of overpaid donekys-bums!

    Bundle em all up and put em on a leaky boat and shove them off.......

  14. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects
    Paris Hilton

    Sheep heads.

    I was listening to BBC's coverage of Parliament earlier.

    About half a dozen men representing the cream of British counsellors are addressing a committee for oversight of the Internet. (13th November 2008 Harmful Internet Content.)

    One clown (Paul Farrelly) had his laptop compromised by his 9 year old. He said that up until yesterday he had never removed a programme on the machine. Then he found it compromised with "adverts" and "icons".

    He presumed it was adware that was causing the problem.

    This is one of the bosses who will be passing laws about Internet access. Honest to god, I imagine Tory B Liar got us into the quagmire of the Iraq and Afghan wars under the same level of competence.

    He then went on to say that Google and another couldn't police the Internet but that My Space could.

    Keith Vaz then got up to say that his secretary knows what a virus is.

    So at least we are in safe hands...

  15. Steve B

    Lack of focus not just the young.

    Once cases were put forward by reasoned argument and pros and cons were used to help people make an informed decision, then along came Maggie and her Spin doctors.

    All of a sudden everything had to be condensed to one liners. It was no longer the done thing to put forward both sides of an argument and let decision makers make an informed decision, the one liners had to put forward just the one case so that it could be agreed.

    This has permeated everywhere and now we have the country and companies run by managers who are promoted yes men, with spin doctors actually providing the guidance.

    Unfortunately this was exacerbated by the opportunist NuLab to insidiate itself in every walk of life.

    The youth have no chance in this setup, OK they can get lost in long computer games, but when it comes down to the lengthy imbibing of knowledge there is nothing to teach, instruct or encourage them. After all, recent UK history shows that if one fails to make the grade, the grade will be lowered.

    As for Jury trials, we all know there is a five + minute ad break every 10 minutes.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Alert

    @AC general knowledge

    As the sunbeam alpine is a 2+2 sports car the front seats tilt forward but then it hassen't been made for an awfuly long time like nearly 40 years so no shame there in not knowing,but they could have asked someone(dipsticks) as for jury selection AFAIK in the UK you can only object to two or three members and thats yer lot also you get "reasonable" expenses usualy based on your pay details of wich they get from your employer or if self employed your accounts I presume as for a better system a lot of people have spent a lot of time looking for just that and not found anything to replace it with of course I take it they didn't ask you,and as for the jurer that went playing detective only one word describes him DIPSHIT.If the Judge wasn't going to chuck the case anyway he is lucky not to find himself on a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice never mind contempt of court.

  17. Harry Percival

    what's in a name?

    Actually the evidence for names causing a predestination is not "shaky" at all. there is plenty of rock-solid evidence that people's names influence their life choices:

    * people with first names that begin with the same letter are more likely to get married

    * people are more likely to choose a career that begins with the first letter of their name - dennis the dentist etc

    * (in america) people are more likely to a move to a state that sounds like their name - george lives in georgia, etc.

    These are all very small effects - eg there are only 0.01% more georges in georgia than there should be - but it is statistically significant - because there's such a massively large population to do statistical analysis on.

    so ner. Stephen Pinker mentions this in lots of his books. it's noted on the NY times blog here http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/23/how-your-name-may-influence-your-behavior/?apage=5 and on edge.org in a recent fascinating interview on edge.org here http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge262.html#4 (strongly recommended)

  18. Mark

    re: Jurors also pass their verdict on the law

    "One day spent checking to see if the jurors can understand evidence draw inferences and change them and dismissing those who can't would help improve justice."

    Problem is, both sides' lawyers get to pick as well as the judge and neither lawyer wants someone who can think for themselves, since it removes the power the best solicitor has in flim flamming the jury to their win.

    And Judges HATE jurors who know about jury nullification. Quite commonly, a question is asked that demonstrate the ideal of jury nullification and if you answer in a certain way, you are refused jury duty by the judge because you demonstrate knowledge of it. Many judges have had jurors kicked out and done for contempt of court for telling other jurors about jury nullification.

    Judges were solicitors too. And just like them, they don't like the competition an informed jury gives them.

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