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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Review: Secrets of the Jury Room, Malcolm Knox (2005)

Laws in Australia circumscribing what can be said about juries - and, specifically, the jury YOU sat on - mean that journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox has had to range far and wide to assemble details for this excellent book. He goes to movies and fiction, academic studies and interviews with judges, police and jury members. He does his homework.

Which is a good thing as juries are about as well-understood as those thermally-tolerant worms that inhabit mid-oceanic ridges. In fact, they're probably less well-understood than these rare creatures.

That's because if you sit on a jury you can't talk about your deliberations. This is one of the shortcomings of being a juror that Knox identifies. Post-jury stress, it seems, is a real problem. And this is the type of problem that Knox is eager to canvas in the book.

Other interesting things emerge, too. For one, Knox tried - as so many eligible jury members do - to exempt himself from participation. When he was unsuccessful in this ignoble assay he simply shrugged and got on with the job. Surprising for Knox, he discovered that the experience enriched his understanding of the processes of the law, and furnished his memory with much else besides.

This sort of positive experience is not unusual, we find based on studies undertaken in Australia and overseas.

Knox says that juries are one of the least-understood elements of the democratic process. For various reasons there could never be a jurists' union but, he says, such an organisation might go some way toward improving the conditions under which juries operate.

Empanelling can be stressful, he says. Once empanelled, the judge is likely to immediately commence the process of presenting evidence. Instructing juries on their rights does not occur at this point, although Knox says that it should. Juries are so busy, he says, taking notes and concentrating on the evidence being presented that they do not ask many questions - as is, it seems, their right.

This is one of the shortcomings of the experience that Knox's book attempts to address. He assembles 12 items at the book's close that he thinks should be addressed in order to improve the stressful experience of being a juror.

Despite restrictions on what can - and cannot - be said, this is an excellent introduction to what being a juror involves, and is recommended reading for all Australians. One day, after all, your turn could come.

In Knox's case, the crime that was alleged was that of soliciting to murder. Knox takes us into the details of the case, having expunged any identifying details that might be cause for an appeal by the defendant, and that might incriminate himself.

In this sense, the book doubles as a crime drama. We are exposed to evidence from the prosecution including transcripts of telephone conversations that were recorded by the police. Knox tells us how the two attorneys handle this information in court, and how the jury reacts to it.

We get a fly's-eye view of the court proceeding (within the limits set down by the law). We also go right into the jury room where the 12 individuals spend a lot of their time waiting, chatting, getting to know each other, and sharing - food, books, cooking tips, opinions about real estate and dating.

It's an intimate scene. This intimacy - which leads to familiarity - may be one of the elements of being a juror that most appeals to Knox. He convinces us that - despite dramatic differences in age, social background, education and upbringing - the jurors 'get on' with one another in an environment of friendliness and cohesion.

It's not always like this, Knox tells us. But that's another reason why reading this book is a good idea. When your time comes to serve, you'll be better prepared for the shocks that will inevitably come.

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