Are jurors well served?

Jury service in Gibraltar, as in many other countries, is a civic duty and an obligation. With very few exceptions (mainly people with serious mental health problems or significant criminal records), anyone aged between 18 and 65 may be asked to serve and if you don’t show up when summoned you commit an offence punishable by a fine. You may ask to be excused, but you’d best have a compelling reason.

If selected for the jury you’re forbidden from discussing the case with anyone except fellow jury members even after the trial is over, not even with your family. If you do, or if you discuss or post comments about the trial on social media, you’re in “contempt of court” and may face prosecution yourself.

Yes, serving on a jury is a serious business.

But are jurors themselves well served?

What happened at the end of a murder trial this month may suggest they’re not. After delivering its guilty verdict, the jury of seven women and five men produced a note that was read out in court in which they requested the creation of a support group or counselling service. The experience of the week-long trial, they said, had been traumatic.

They probably weren’t aware of it, but their sentiments chimed with the findings of a report that warned, precisely, that the nature of the evidence seen and heard by juries in the course of a trial can lead to trauma. The research, by psychologists at the University of Leicester, concluded that jury service can be a significant source of anxiety and for a vulnerable minority can engender moderate to severe clinical levels of stress. In the longer term it could, the report claimed, even lead to symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Among the most frequently reported sources of stress were having to decide on a verdict; fear of making a mistake; reaching a majority verdict rather than a unanimous one (in murder cases the verdict must be unanimous) and being in a minority position among jury members. Listening to disturbing evidence and being sequestered for the duration of the trial were also high on the list.

To quote the report, jurors:

“Will be exposed to testimony from visibly distressed victims, which will frequently be graphic and shocking. They will be expected to handle exhibits and examine explicit and gruesome photographs. When they retire to the jury room, they will have to rehearse such evidence and weigh up its significance for the guilt of the accused before reaching a verdict. They may find themselves in a minority on the jury, trying to change the minds of others while resisting pressures to conform to the majority view. All these processes have the potential to lead to significant distress, both in the short and longer term”.

 That’s in the UK. In a small jurisdiction like Gibraltar, where it’s much more likely that jury members will personally know the accused, the victim and/or their families, the potential levels of stress must surely be higher still. But jurors are expected to just get on with it. They don’t even have the benefit, as their UK counterparts do, of being shown a film explaining their duties before the trial starts, a measure that many see as insufficient anyway. What’s more, despite improvements to the infrastructure arrangements for juries, potential jurors waiting to be called still have to hang around in the Supreme Court precincts, mingling with defendants and witnesses.

Nearly a decade ago, following a public consultation, the GSD government introduced reforms to the jury system. These included abolishing many of the automatic exemptions from jury service that had hitherto existed (meaning that lawyers, MPs and teachers among others could now be asked to serve) and providing for lay assessors to sit alongside judges, or for judges to sit alone, in complex financial crime cases. The very question of whether trial by jury should be abolished was posed.

But while the 2008 consultation paper asked the public whether it thought there was any intimidation of jurors and what type of measures would best address this problem, it was silent on the potentially harmful effects to health that serving on a jury might have. Maybe the cry for help by the “12 good men (and women) and true” who decided the outcome of Gibraltar’s most recent murder trial will have the desired effect.

And the Oscar doesn’t go to …

Ahead of the Oscars ceremony last month Keira Kneightley asked a pertinent question: “how do you really judge any of it?” Interviewed in The Times, the twice-nominated actress suggested that unless all the players play exactly the same role in exactly the same film, and each director makes exactly the same script, it’s impossible to decide. All you can say, she concluded, is that you like one film better than the other.

While Ms Kneightley was referring mainly to the acting and directing awards the same surely applies to other categories. Take the most prestigious award of all, Best Picture. How, for instance, do you choose between an all-action superhero flick, a tear-jerking drama and a musical biography (viz. this year: Black Panther, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody)?

As it all comes down to personal taste, these are some of my favourite films that never won the Oscar:

“2001: A Space Odyssey”. Despite regularly being voted the best science fiction film of all time by critics and audiences and its description in Wikipedia as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece wasn’t even nominated.  Kubrick himself got a nod in the Best Director category, but the sole statuette “2001” took home was for Special Visual Effects.


“Taxi Driver”. As part of his preparation for the starring role in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 psychological thriller, Robert De Niro lost 35 pounds, obtained a taxi driver’s licence, and when on break would pick up a taxi and drive around New York. The film introduced the world to a 12-year-old Jodie Foster and gave us “You Talkin’ to Me?”, one of cinema’s most quotable quotes. It topped a Time Out poll of the 100 greatest movies set in New York City and was selected for preservation in the US’s National Film Registry in 1994, twelve years before that year’s best picture winner, “Rocky”.

“The Shining”. OK so Kubrick is my favourite director and this is the second of his films featured here, but can anyone reasonably argue that this classic 1980 horror film, set in the Overlook Hotel, wasn’t unforgivably overlooked by the Academy? It wasn’t nominated for a single award, not even for Jack Nicholson’s spellbinding performance as Jack Torrance, the unhinged author who accepts a temporary position as the off-season caretaker of the aforementioned establishment. To add insult to injury Kubrick and Shelley Duvall, who plays Torrance’s scared-witless wife, were nominated for the mock Razzie Awards that recognise the worst in film. And they didn’t even win that.

Forrest Gump was 1994’s worthy winner but my choice would have been director Quentin Tarantino’s follow up to the also critically acclaimed Reservoir Dogs: Pulp Fiction. The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “outrageously violent, time twisting, and in love with language … widely considered the most influential American movie of the 1990s”. It received seven nominations but only took the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Other classic films to miss out on the top award include Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, The Graduate, Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull.

Here’s a few films that are less well known: Don’t Look Now, Paths of Glory, Synecdoche New York, Donnie Darko, Zodiac. What do they all have in common? They’re great – and they didn’t get a single Academy Award nomination between them.

As for this year’s awards, I was pleased to see the unfancied Green Book take Best Picture, but disappointed that seven-times nominee Glenn Close is still waiting for a first Best Actress statuette despite her movingly impeccable performance as an unacknowledged author in “The Wife”.