Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jury rigged

The latest legal horror story has been pointed out in this interview with bFM and Auckland University Associate Professor of Law Scott Optican. Not content with the destruction of centuries-old precedent with majority juries, police access to potential jurors' criminal records strike at the very heart at who is on trial here.
"The Supreme Court has been asked to determine and has granted an appeal on three questions of law. Number one, can the police supply so-called vetted jury lists to the Crown, to assist the Crown in deciding whether or not to challenge a prospective juror in a criminal case? The answer that is yes.

"The second question is should the vetted jury list that is supplied to the Crown, also be made available to the accused? And the third question is, can the Crown peremptorily challenge a prospective juror, on the basis of information contained from a vetted jury list."
J Fogarty raised the issue in February, dismissing the practice which various police districts had been using, giving these vetted lists over to the Crown. I agree with Fogarty on this. Jurors are not on trial, and if previous convictions for the defendant were inadmissable (this too is changing, but that's another story again), what the hell has a juror's past got to do with it?

The Court of Appeal overturned this in April, stating that there was no specific prohibition on the practice of supplying vetted jury lists, nor that there was any onus on the police sharing this information with the Defence.

Clearly, the Court of Appeal shared the police's view that an abuse of priveleged information to assist a conviction is OK. Optican gives the example of a juror's previous drug conviction being of material interest to the Crown's ability to dismiss that juror during a drug trial. He is personally in favour of the American system, which allows far more cross-examination of prospective jurors.

There are several very wrong things about this. Most obviously, it allows stacked juries in favour of the Crown, which is a horrendous abuse of fair justice. Secondly, it makes a mockery of the intent of Nandor Tanczos' seven year forgiveness law. Crime is temporary but the punishment is permanent.

The most harmful impact of this decision will strike at the very core of our democracy. Many people aren't on the electoral rolls already, because these publically available documents are very handy for debt collectors. If the public discover that their private lives are being rifled through when chosen for jury service, then you may very well see a large drop-off in electoral enrolment.

Furthermore, the casual dessimination of personal details to police exposes law-abiding citizens to having these details land up in a landfill/gutter. The next time a gang-raping police officer goes on trial, pray that you don't get called. Only a lemming would return a guilty verdict.