Retrial sparks debate on majority verdicts

Published: Sunday | June 28, 2009

Barbara Gayle, Staff Reporter

From left Townsend, Neita-Robertson and McIntosh

THE PROBLEMS facing the justice system were highlighted last week in the Home Circuit Court when a 12-member jury, after sitting for three weeks in a murder case, failed to arrive at a unanimous verdict.A retrial has been ordered for the two accused, who have been in custody since they were arrested and charged in 2006. Majority verdicts are not accepted in murder cases.

The outcome of this case has led to Senior Puisne Judge Marva McIntosh making an impassioned plea for legislation to be passed to allow two to four alternate jurors in a murder case.

"Alternate jurors is a good system," the judge said. Justice McIntosh also emphasised that when a case had to be retried, it added to the huge backlog of cases cluttering the court list.

The justice system has not been able to make a significant dent in the backlog of cases despite pledges each term that there would be reductions in the court list.

One of the jurors trying the case of the two men had asked to be excused for two days last week so he could complete a job he had started, but he was not excused.The judge pointed out that had there been alternate jurors, then there would be no problem excusing the juror.

The judge was not alone in her call for legislation.

act quickly

Attorney-at-law Kathy Pyke, who prosecuted, called for legislation to be passed for majority verdicts to be accepted in murder cases. She said the legislators and the minister of justice should act quickly to pass legislation for it to be done.

Defence lawyers Valerie Neita Robertson and Christopher Townsend, who represented the accused men, said they were opposed to any amendment for majority verdicts.

"The jury system should not be tampered with to satisfy one side or the other, Neita-Robertson said.

"Hung juries don't happen very often," she added.

"Neita-Robertson explained that if there were a 10-2 majority verdict to be taken, when there was a majority of nine, they would want to reduce the majority from nine to three.

It is her view that the "system should have cases properly investigated so they can have the best possible chance of success".

Townsend said he appeared in the Gun Court on many occasions and there were cases on the list which were going nowhere. He called on the director of public prosecutions to weed out such cases because that would help to reduce the backlog.

Neita-Robertson was positive that plea bargaining was one of the methods which would help to reduce the court list. She said with plea bargaining, some cases would not go to trial and that was what the authorities should work on.

Pyke sees the need for jurors to be challenged for cause and McIntosh is in agreement.The judge said that the defence and the prosecution should have the right to challenge jurors for cause, because the judge was not always able to observe the demeanour of some of the jurors before they were sworn. "The facial expressions and body language of a juror says a lot," McIntosh said.

question jurors

The judge explained that challenge for cause would give defence lawyers and prosecutors the opportunity to question jurors before they were sworn, so as to ascertain if they had problems. She said some jurors who had jobs that required them to work at specific times were sometimes resentful when they were selected to sit on cases.

She said one of the reasons that trials sometimes end in juries failing to arrive at unanimous verdicts in murder cases was because there was no system to challenge for cause.

There are orientations for jurors after they are summoned to serve. McIntosh said that at orientations, jurors were told what to expect and also advised that if they had any problems, they should indicate these if they were selected to sit on a case.

The two accused, Jason Brown and Ricardo Lawrence, labourers, of Spanish Town, St Catherine, have been remanded to return to court on July 24 when their lawyers will make bail applications. They are charged jointly with the murder of Errol Miller, who was fatally shot on Monk Street, Spanish Town, on July 19, 2005.


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