This is the second in my Absolute Beginners series. (Being an absolute beginner at “absolute beginners” posts, I had no idea I was going to write a second and can’t promise there will ever be another in this “series.” I can promise this is just as informative as the first.)
I had jury service this week. I sort of couldn’t really be bothered with it, so I gave myself a talking to: “You’re a writer so grab the chance, for goodness sake. You’ll see into the workings of a courtroom, get to the heart of what makes a jury tick. I mean, nobody has ever written a courtroom drama before, so it is your golden opportunity to write a gritty, glamorous novel that will catapult you to instant stardom and champagne receptions.”
So I took a notepad with me. You know: to record all the gritty drama. For my best-selling novel.
It promised to be fun, interesting. And very exciting.
Here’s how it went:
I sat for two and a half hours in a windowless room with 180 other people while two TVs talked politics and a third talked something completely different. Occasionally someone came into the room and stood by a funny loudspeakery thing that was fixed into the wall. Mostly she said sorry. Sorry you have to wait so long. Sorry I have no clue what’s going on. Sorry it’s so hot in here. Sorry, I tried to find out what was going on, and there was a meeting that I gatecrashed, but I still haven’t a clue. Sorry the TVs are driving you all crackers. (Oh, not wait, she didn’t say that. She probably thought we got excited at the sight of politicians walking through airports with suitcases. Or at hearing politicians say they were the best ever, and other people say they weren’t. I expect it is very exciting if you are one of those politicians.)
One of the times she said sorry, she also said someone would come soon to let us know what was happening.
That other someone came in, a man this time. He didn’t stand by the little loudspeakery thing, no matter how many people shouted, “We can’t hear you!” And, “Stand in the middle next to the loudspeakery thing!”
So we couldn’t hear what he said. Then he went out, and we all turned to each other and said, “What did he say?” Slowly the message filtered down from the few people near the door who had heard: “Someone will let you know what’s happening in five minutes.”
That’s when I discovered something really interesting: the Sheriff Court must use the same type of clock as my teenage daughter. It works differently to the clocks you and I use, measures time in a different way – every minute in their time (my daughter’s and the court’s) is equivalent to roughly five minutes in our time. So twenty-five of our minutes (and five of their minutes) passed.
The first someone came in again then. Or maybe my brain was just so hot and my eyes so blurred from reading a terrible Ian McEwan novel* without my reading glasses (which I don’t really need so never wear but when I look up from reading everything else goes blurry.)
Anyway, either the first someone came in again (looking slightly blurred) or a different someone did, and she remembered about the loudspeakery thing. She told us it was time. We all had to into to Courtroom 11 where they would select fifteen of us for the jury. All 180 of us followed her out, along a corridor (where it wasn’t hot) and into Courtroom 11. This is a very efficient system; I am terribly impressed with the careful use of public money. (Though, now I think of it, I didn’t cost the public a penny because I walked there and back so haven’t claimed expenses.)
When I came through the door of the courtroom, on one side I noticed a lot of people sitting on seats. On the other side were a couple of people sitting side by side on a long bench. They had their backs to us. Beyond them were two people facing each other, a couple of people behind them and facing us. Beyond them was the sheriff.
It’s something of a disappointment to me that Scottish Sheriffs don’t wear cowboy hats and collars with metal pointy bits. Instead they look a bit like watered-down judges, with a wig that covers the top of the head but doesn’t flow down over the shoulders. Still, it would be handy for covering up a bald patch.
After a few moments I realised that the people sitting down weren’t members of the public in the viewing gallery, but my fellow possible-jurors. By then it was too late, and all the seats were gone. Still, after sitting for two and a half hours it didn’t much matter.
The sheriff (in his mini-wig and black cape-thing) said, “Sorry.” He explained that they had been doing other trials that morning while we sat getting bored and sweaty. (Okay he didn’t say that last bit.) He explained this trial was supposed to have started earlier so now they would just pick the jury and then get shot of the rest of us. Cos it was after twelve-thirty by then so if they kept us any longer they’d have to feed us lunch. (Okay, maybe he didn’t put it quite like that.) Even the jury would go home then because they would start the trial in the morning. He explained it was a straightforward case and would be over by the end of the next day.
I liked that plan. I meant that if I got picked I would get all the material for my block-buster crime novel and still be home for dinner the next day.
The clerk started picking names and numbers out of a goldfish bowl. (There weren’t any goldfish in it – they’d all got bored and gone home long ago.) She didn’t pick mine.
The clerk read the charges against the accused. (One of the two people on the long bench.) He had brandished a knife in a manner that could cause fear and alarm. He had done this brandishing three times, and two of those times were at the sheriff court.
I’m not sure if it was the determined manner of the clerk’s dictation, but by the time she’d finished, my latent inner-Fascist tendencies had kicked in and I assumed the accused was guilty. Afterwards, when the sheriff reminded us that he was innocent until proven guilty, I thought it was just as well that I hadn’t been picked.
The clerk read out the name of the accused, and of the witnesses. There were six witnesses, and four of them were police. If any of the jurors knew any of these people then that juror would be replaced. Fortunately, in light of my new-found inner-Fascist, nobody knew anybody and the jury remained as it was.
The rest of us got to go home then, but had to ring again the next day. So I was back in the hot windowless room on Wednesday morning. Our group had shrunk to around fifty, and we were joined by another group – all neatly divided into Group A and Group B. We sat about for a while. I was near the open door and the cooler air from the corridor wafted in, so it was all very pleasant. Almost. We even started speaking to each other, and – being British – people moaned. Mostly they moaned about how long we’d waited on Monday and hoped we wouldn’t have to do it all again. The woman sitting next to me said she’d been a bit shocked on Monday to discover that if we wanted a cup tea we’d have to pay for it. I hadn’t even seen the lady with her tea trolley, but she must have wanted to prove her existence because she came in right then.
We didn’t buy any of her tea. The woman next to me noticed a Suggestions box, and suggested suggesting we get free tea. I suggested she write her suggestion and offered her a pen and paper. Which I happened to have in my bag (cos that best-selling crime novel.) Another man said he had a few suggestions and I offered him paper too, but he said he’d be up in court if he wrote them.
The man who didn’t know how to use the loudspeakery thing came in and said sorry. Then he explained that he was going to speak to the people who were in on Monday, and went and stood next to the people who hadn’t been in on Monday. We all called, “We’re here!” “It’s us!” Eventually he got the message and told us to go through to court twelve.
There I was once again not picked, but I am relieved to be able to tell you that my latent-Fascist tendencies are once again in abeyance. When the clerk read out the charges, I remembered right from the start that the accused was innocent until proven guilty.
The sheriff said sorry for all the waiting about we’d done on Monday, but just in case one of the jury suddenly realised they knew the accused, we had to wait while they went out and did “got themselves comfortable” (which was probably a euphemism for going to the toilet.) Once they were all comfortable and back in their seats, the sheriff said the rest of us could go. But he had one last offer for us.
I’m not sure if it’s standard practice, or if he wanted to make up for all our waiting about, but he said we could do more waiting about if we wanted. (And watch the trial.) I was tempted – cos that best-selling crime novel.
Then my stomach rumbled.
So, sorry, but the greatest crime novel of our time will never be written.
*The novel was Solar and at that time I was expecting it to get better and for the main character to stop being totally obnoxious. I gave up reading when it became clear that it wasn’t going to improve. Some reviewers on Amazon like it, but most felt that it’s not his best book. I agree.
Photos by MorgueFile