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Majority Verdicts and Reasonable Doubt

Gavel, scales of justice and law books

Recently I attended an Inside Justice Live Crime event hosted by Anglia Law School at Anglia Ruskin University. The last speaker for the evening was Kevin Lane who is trying to have his wrongful conviction overturned, during his discussion he mentioned that he was found guilty of murder by a 10-2 majority verdict. It came as quite a shock to me to hear that majority verdicts are used for murder charges in England.

In 1994 Robert Magill was shot dead by a hitman while walking his dog in Hertfordshire, two men fled the scene in a BMW car. In 1995 Lane and a co-accused were charged with the murder of Magill. The prosecution alleged that Lane had received payment for this murder and submitted that fingerprints were found in bin liners in the car. Police were unable to link Lane to the scene of the crime, were unable to prove he had received payment, and he has always maintained his innocence.

There were a number of limitations and concerns in this case – the murder weapon was never recovered, two prime suspects who were brought to the police’s attention soon after the murder were not properly investigated and were later found to have an inappropriate relationship with the investigating police officer, and there were on going disclosure problems. Further, in 2002 the investigating officer was sent to prison for four years of conspiracy to steal ‎£160,000 from the Hertfordshire Police and misconduct in a public office. (This is a very brief summary of a complicated case).

A majority verdict is used when the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict and where the jury consists of usually 12 jurors and at least 10 or 11 agree (depending on the jurisdiction) – under certain conditions the judge is able to accept the jury’s verdict. The provision of a majority verdict is generally used when a prescribed period of time has elapsed, and the judge is satisfied that the jury are unlikely to reach a unanimous verdict after further deliberation. Majority verdicts have been used in England since 1974 and were originally introduced to prevent the intimidation or bribing of jurors.

While I am aware of majority verdicts, as they are used in Queensland, Australia (where I completed my legal education). Majority verdicts cannot be used for murder trials, for an offence which has mandatory life imprisonment as a penalty, and Commonwealth offences. The overall concern with majority verdicts is that if the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision then they cannot be said to have reached a decision ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ which is the standard of proof for criminal matters, and as a consequence have demonstrated reasonable doubt.

Unanimous jury verdicts have been part of the common law since the 14thcentury. Prior to 1866, if a jury could not reach an agreement they could be ‘carried around in a wagon with the court without meat or drink, fire or candle until they were starved or frozen into agreement.’ We have obviously come a long way since the days of locking jurors up and separating them from their family and friends until they reached a decision.

Using unanimous verdicts is argued to reduce the risk of convicting an innocent person, that unanimity is a fundamental feature of a jury trial, it leads to better deliberation, and that disagreement in a jury is not unreasonable. When considering the issue from the perspective of the accused, majority verdicts place them at a great disadvantage when one considers that the prosecution has much more resources. There are already a number of contributors to wrongful convictions which the accused needs to contest with, and the fact that appeals are very difficult.

It can be argued there are benefits for majority verdicts – they reduce the instance of a hung jury (where the accused is neither acquitted or convicted) and the potential for a retrial (and the economic cost associated for a criminal justice system which is already overloaded). Majority verdicts are said to overcome problems with ‘rogue’ jurors, bribery and intimidation. The use of majority verdicts allows there to be finality in the case for the victim/s, the accused, the family and friend of the victim/s and accused, and the community.

Personally, I believe that in the interest of justice majority verdicts should not be used in serious criminal cases – such as murder and offences which carry mandatory life imprisonment penalty. These cases are much too serious and if reasonable doubt is present then this should be recognised. In Kevin Lane’s case he would not have been convicted, served 18 years in prison, and still be trying to overturn his conviction.

Further reading

Cowdery, N. (2007). Majority jury verdicts. Reform Issue. 90, 18-19.

Garrett, B.L. & Neufeld, P.J. (2009). Invalid forensic science testimony and wrongful convictions. Virginia Law Review. 95(1), 1-97.

Gray, A. (2009). A guarantee right to trial by jury at state level? Australian Journal of Human Rights. 15(1), 97-125.

Roberts, S. & Weathered, L. (2009). Assisting the factually innocent: The contradictions and compatibility of Innocence Projects and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. 29(1), 43-70.

Sankoff, P. (2006). Majority jury verdicts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. UBC Law Review. 39(2), 333-369.

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