Page last updated at 07:31 GMT, Monday, 18 June 2007 08:31 UK

Spotlight on jury room pressures

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Two men - Patrick Smith and Joseph Merceica - have been cleared of luring a businessman into a trap and killing him, following the conclusion of their fourth trial.

The House of Lords had initially ordered the men's retrial after a juror at their second trial complained of being "badgered and intimidated" by other jurors into delivering a guilty verdict. So what are the rules of the jury room?

Scene from 12 Angry Men
Henry Fonda's character (centre) persuaded the other 11 jurors

Anyone who has ever seen the film Twelve Angry Men will know the scene.

Henry Fonda played a strong and persuasive character who cajoled his fellow jurors into acquitting a man they were all convinced was guilty.

The secrets of the jury room are supposed to be sacrosanct in Britain - less so in the United States, where jurors frequently give press conferences to explain their verdicts in high profile cases such as the Michael Jackson trial.

But what happens in real life if jurors are badgered into changing their minds by their peers?

Right to a fair trial

The jury in Patrick Smith and Joseph Merceica's first trial was discharged after a juror was found with a mobile phone.

Following the complaints from a juror in their second trial, they were granted a retrial, which ended with a hung jury.

A fourth trial finally ended on Friday with the pair being acquitted of all charges.

Patrick Smith (left) and Joseph Merceica
Even if they're not guilty, do you really want these people to go free?
Juror in first Smith and Merceica trial

The case illustrates how important it is not only for justice to be done but for it to be "seen" to be done.

The story began on 27 January 2000 when Hertfordshire businessman Mark Levy disappeared after going to London for a meeting to discuss the purchase of 12 Rolex watches.

Mr Levy has not been seen since and his body has never been found but in May 2002 Smith and Merceica were jailed for life for his murder.

Jurors at the Old Bailey trial were told the murder was carried out under the noses of the National Crime Squad, which had Smith under surveillance at the time.

2001: Jury at Mr Smith and Mr Merceica's first trial discharged after a juror was found with a mobile phone.
2002: Mr Smith and Mr Merceica convicted but a juror later complains and convictions quashed
2006: Jury at third trial fail to agree verdicts.
2007: Jury acquits Mr Smith and Mr Merceica

They heard he was suspected of being behind the importation of 500 kilos of cannabis which arrived in Britain on the same day as the murder.

When the jury went out to deliberate they were given a lengthy direction on the law by the trial judge.

After several days of deliberation one of the jurors sent a detailed letter to the judge.

He gave them another direction on the law and some time later they returned with a guilty verdict.

Mr Smith and Mr Merceica lost an appeal against their convictions but took the case to the House of Lords, claiming the judge should have dismissed the jury and declared a mistrial after receiving the letter from a woman juror.

Richard Latham QC
Prosecutor Richard Latham QC, the subject of a juror's affections

The Law Lords heard that, in the letter, she alleged some jurors were "badgering and intimidating" others to reach a particular verdict.

She quoted one of her fellow jurors as having said: "Even if they're not guilty, do you really want these people to go free?"

The Law Lords ordered a new trial. That ended in a hung jury and the fourth trial finally ended on Friday. Mr Levy's widow, Tina, was forced to give evidence a total of five times.

It is not the first time there have been allegations concerning jurors:

  • A murder conviction in 1994 was overturned after it emerged that four jurors had consulted a ouija board during a drinking session on the eve of the verdict.

  • In 2004 the Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by two conmen who were convicted despite it emerging that a female juror had sent a bottle of champagne to prosecutor Richard Latham with a note saying: "What does a lady need to do to attract your attention?"

  • In 2001 Shabbir Ali Mirza was jailed after being found guilty on a majority verdict of indecent assault. After the trial a juror wrote to his barrister claiming other jurors were racially biased against Mr Mirza. She said when she objected she was "shouted down" by "bigots".

  • In another case a judge was informed by the jury bailiff that two jurors had climbed through a window and were sitting on the ledge smoking cigarettes and refusing to participate in deliberations.

    What are the rules?

    So what are the rules governing jury service and juror misbehaviour?

    People who have been given custodial sentences are automatically excused from jury service but that does not mean those who do serve are going to be beyond reproach.

    In 2004 the Department of Constitutional Affairs announced a consultation paper and among the suggestions was that the public might be able to scrutinise the decisions of juries.

    But last year after consulting lawyers, judges and other interested parties the DCA decided to keep to the status quo. The secrets of the jury room will remain secret.

    It is however still open to a judge to find a juror in contempt of court.

    It's up to the jury to argue it out among themselves. There must be circumstances where some jurors are more assertive than others and are bound to make more of an impact
    Joshua Rozenberg
    Legal expert

    That is exactly what happened to Keith Scotcher in 2002. He was fined 2,500 after he wrote an anonymous letter to the mother of a defendant saying he had been on the jury and thought her son had been wrongly convicted.

    But the Daily Telegraph's legal editor, Joshua Rozenberg, said there was no suggestion the "badgering" jurors in the Smith and Merceica case had broken the law.

    He said: "It's up to the jury to argue it out among themselves. There must be circumstances where some jurors are more assertive than others and are bound to make more of an impact. That is what reaching agreement means."

    Mr Rozenberg said jurors had been fined or ticked off by judges - for example if their mobile phones went off during a trial - and he said: "A judge has powers to control his own court but they do not like prying into what is going on in the jury room."

    Amorous juror did not bias trial
    28 Jul 04 |  England
    'Ouija board' appeal dismissed
    07 Dec 04 |  Southern Counties

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