Friday, June 5, 2009

Contempt of court

Since you're not in New Zealand, you've probably never heard of David Bain. He's very big just now.

Depending who you listen to, Bain is either the unluckiest man in the country, or a mass murderer. Both terms in their most literal meaning. There is no middle ground.

The facts as we know them: at 7:09 on the morning of 20 June 1994, David Bain - then aged 22 - called the police, from his home in Dunedin, to report that his family were all dead. Police arrived to find that his mother, father, two younger sisters and young brother had been killed with a hunting rifle. Most of the victims were still in their rooms, but the father, Robin, who slept in a caravan in the garden, was in the lounge.

Beyond that point, the facts get more murky. If you want to know the ins and outs of the evidence you can Google it for yourself; suffice it to say here that the Bains were not a happy family. Incest, bullying and fear seem to have been the prevailing ethics. The crown says that David killed his own family before going out on his paper round to establish an alibi. The defence says that Robin killed the family, then shot himself and, deliberately or not, framed David.

In May/June 1995, David Bain was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. Over the next ten years, he steadily protested his innocence, and bits of evidence slowly dripped out that tended to support him. In 2007, the Privy Council ruled that evidence was strong enough to justify at least a retrial.

Right now, the jury is deliberating that retrial. Since they're sequestered - isolated from the media - it seems we're finally allowed to say out loud whether we think he dunnit or not.

Me, I'm not going to take advantage of that license. There's twelve people in Christchurch who have sat through three months of this stuff full-time. They know more about it than I do. I've done jury service; it's nothing if not intensive: for the duration of the trial, you really get to concentrate.

And yet, lots of ordinary people feel qualified to second-guess the jury.

It doesn't help that anyone with a decent professional job isn't expected to do jury service; they will invariably plead that they're too "indispensible" to give up their time. (The alternative is to face uncomfortable questions from their boss as to why they're not indispensible. To say nothing of a significant loss of income.) So it follows - to those people, at least - that juries are staffed exclusively by housewives, dossers, students and sundry other losers.

And believing that, who can trust them?

I really don't care much about the Bain case. But in general, on the whole, I'm for law. And I think that for the law to fulfil its primary purpose - to protect us all from vigilantes - it would be a great step forward if jury service were made compulsory: universal and unexcusable.

Update: It's taken the jury about a day to decide that Bain is not guilty, apparently. The judge told them to come to a unanimous verdict, and that's it. Evidently they don't think the prosecution did enough to prove its case.


SMG said...

I have never served on a jury either and when I read tings like this I am glad. I followed the links and read up on the case. The term reasonable doubt comes to mind but I ended up leaning toward probable guilt. Good stuff Vet!

Nodressrehearsal said...

I say if he only killed his entire family and nobody else, he's not a threat to society; just a threat to his bloodline.

Free David Bain!

Sorry. I probably don't really think that. Any time I've been called to serve jury duty I go willingly and they always dismiss me, opting for the housewife with curlers in her hair.

My son served a few years back - he said the judge slept through most of the proceedings.

vet said...

I thought of calling this attitude to juries "OJ Syndrome", but according to Google that term has already been appropriated by people who think they know more about that case than the jury.

NDR, the trouble with the "he's no threat" line is the effect it has on other people. Have you tried putting curlers in your hair, see if that does the trick?

Jantar said...

Interesting story (of which I hadn't heard yet. Otherwise, I might have run with it...)

I'm not a big fan of the jury system, since this tends to result in macho game playing by both prosecution and defence. It can become more of a pissing contest than establishing guilt or innocence.

Still, if you want to have a jury system I would agree with you that, in order to properly function, it should be obligatory.

If people can and do opt out too easily and in huge numbers, you could get to the point where only people who have nothing better to do an/or who love to sit in judgement over others turn up - which would not be an ideal state of affairs,