Only the harshest critic would deny that the task of a jury in deciding a verdict can be a very difficult one indeed. But, once the foreman of the jury rises to deliver that verdict, then that part of the procedure is surely simplicity itself. Nay, even foolproof. He must pronounce ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Strange, then, that the leading case of The Crown v. William Vodden, heard at Glamorgan Quarter Sessions in 1853, should ever have entered the legal textbooks, let alone be cited on a number of occasions since, even as recently as 1999.
But cited it is, for jury foremen, it seems, sometimes get a little befuddled. The (possibly apocryphal!) case of the Irish foreman who confidently announced, ‘My Lord, we find the man who stole the mare not guilty’ is not as ludicrous as it may seem, nor is the celebrated procrastination of Tony Hancock in a classic episode of television’s Hancock’s Half Hour.
In the Glamorgan case, Vodden was on trial for larceny, that quaint old term for theft that makes that act sound almost artistic. At the end of proceedings the jury foreman, Owen Hughes, rose to deliver the clear verdict of not guilty. The chairman duly discharged the prisoner but as he did so there was an audible murmur from the remainder of the jury. They had, they quickly made clear, all agreed on a verdict of guilty. As a result of this confusion the defendant was brought back into the dock and the chairman of the bench subjected the jury to a round of ‘Is that your final answer?’ The first eleven said the intended verdict was definitely guilty and when it came to Owen Hughes he too, perhaps too embarrassed to admit his inexplicable slip of the tongue, said he had definitely said ‘Guilty’.
As a consequence, the erstwhile and much relieved defen dant was cast into a rather darker humour as the verdict was reversed and he was sentenced to two months’ hard labour.
That being a somewhat unpleasant prospect, he decided to appeal for a counter-reversal and the case went to the Court for Crown Cases Reserved. There Chief Baron Pollock estab lished an important precedent: ‘What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life,’ he said, ‘namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.’ He ruled that the hard labour must stand.
The message to jurors was clear. If you botch it up, admit it pronto. Strange as it is that the wrong wording from a choice of only two verdicts should ever emerge from the mouth of a jury foreman at the crucial moment, the precedent established by the Vodden case has been put to the test throughout legal history. In 1985, in The Crown v. Andrews, the jury foreman clearly announced a verdict of not guilty on the charge that the defendant had subjected a child to cruelty. But ten minutes later, during the sentencing of a co-defendant, he sheepishly passed a note to the judge stating: ‘We thought we found Andrews guilty; what happens now?’ It may sound like an entertaining alternative to A Question of Sport, but it was all in deadly earnest and again, much to Andrews’s disgust, an about-turn was ordered and a verdict of guilty was recorded. The Court of Appeal later once more upheld the Vodden principle and the guilty verdict held.
Only where there has been too lengthy a time lapse in such cases or a change of mind has been deemed to be purely on a whim has the Court of Appeal ordered ‘erroneous’ first verdicts to stand.
If only juries were perfect such debates would be nonexistent, and Crime’s Strangest Cases would be a very slim volume, which would never do. So, thank goodness that folly among jurors is an established part of legal history.
Take the farcical goings-on at Snaresbrook Crown Court in 1993. After listening for three days to the case against a man accused of robbery, the jury deliberated their verdict for three hours before losing the plot completely and sending a note to the judge, which asked, ‘Is it a question of whether we have to decide if he is guilty or not guilty?’
Nor is the mayhem confined to home shores. In 1960 an Appeal Court in New Jersey, USA, ordered a retrial in an accident case because of ‘basic confusion’ in the original courtroom. The final straw came, so it seems, when the judge asked the jury foreman, ‘Have you agreed on your verdict, Mr Foreman?’ The reply – ‘My name isn’t Foreman: my name is Admerman’ – was more than the judge could bear.
And the great thing about these oddities is that, just when you think they can’t get any worse, they do.
Back in the realms of the guilty-or-not-guilty conundrum, we again find ourselves in Wales. At Cardiff Crown Court in April 1999 Judge Michael Gibbon sentenced Alan Rashid, charged with making a threat to kill, to two years’ imprisonment, after he thought he heard the jury foreman say ‘Guilty’. Only when a confused juror asked an usher to explain the sentence did it emerge that ‘Not guilty’ was the intended verdict. Tapes of the proceedings were played and Rashid was duly freed. Surprise, surprise: no appeal from the accused this time!
The story that appeared in all the newspapers was that an untimely cough had drowned out the vital ‘not’ when the verdict had been delivered, although Judge Gibbon, perhaps keen not to make a monkey of himself, said that had not been the case. The foreman had, quite simply, he asserted, made a mistake in his delivery. Was there a cough? There was certainly a hiccup.
Lord Devlin (1905-92) once learnedly commented, ‘What makes juries worthwhile is that they see things differently from judges. Trial by jury is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.’
He might well have added, ‘Once in a while there is a loose connection in that lamp or the bulb goes out. Then, regrettably, we are all left in the dark.’