Judge or jury trial – what’s best?
Suppose you are charged with a serious crime. Should you trust your guilt or innocence to twelve strangers, chosen from the community with all their prejudices and frailties? Or to a judge who is supposedly skilled in the law and experienced in balancing evidence?
Australia’s criminal justice system is built on the age-old principle that citizens have the right to be judged by juries of their peers. However, people facing prosecution for serious crimes may be able to apply to have a judge alone decide their guilt or innocence.
Jessica Mackay was a top level prosecutor before she joined Stacks Law Firm, crossing the courtroom floor to become a defence lawyer. She knows the criminal law from both sides, and this is her strength in defending her clients.
“In my experience, jurors take their job as judges of the facts of a case very seriously, and are reluctant to find a person guilty unless there is compelling evidence,” she said.
However, to assume jurors always leave their personal prejudices at the door, and weigh cases purely based on evidence presented in court, is naïve.
With a jury, an accused person benefits from the combined life experience, common sense and sympathies of twelve ordinary people.
A good example is the increasing numbers of vulnerable people getting caught up in drug smuggling, after being groomed by criminals over the internet.
Right now, there is considerable public sympathy for people who get sucked in by these Nigerian email scams, and as a result most if not all of them have been acquitted at trial.
On the flip side, jury trials are unpredictable, and can throw up all sorts of unexpected issues and difficulties.
Just think about social media, and the way it dominates all our lives today. Despite consistent warnings from a judge, a juror might think nothing of searching the Internet for information about the accused person, or updating their Facebook status with their thoughts about the case. However, simple mistakes like that can derail a trial, and force an accused person and the victims and their families to go through the whole thing again.
“I once prosecuted four people charged with a 500 kilogram haul of heroin and ice. Four months into the trial, it was discovered that one of the jurors couldn’t read, and potentially hadn’t understood a good deal of the evidence” Ms Mackay said.
“The trial had to be aborted, and the four defendants waited a year before the retrial.”
“Whether to apply for a judge alone trial is a crucial decision, best made on advice from an experienced criminal lawyer,” said Ms Mackay.