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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Charlotte Winsor and Joanne Fraill

In 1865 Charlotte Winsor killed the baby of a local woman, allegedly on her request, and both women were put to trial for it. However, the second woman (Mary Harris) was later acquitted on the proviso that she testify against Winsor. The really interesting aspect of this case comes in the manner Winsor's conviction was delayed due to the way juries were treated at the time. It occurred to me earlier this week, while reading the articles about Joanna Fraill's eight month imprisonment, that the prospect of locking juries up in a room until they made a decision and not allowing them to go home was ingenious then - and could still work now. Fraill, for anyone unfamiliar with the story, was sentenced to eight months imprisonment for contempt of court after contacting a defendant via Facebook and conducting her own Internet research in the case she was supposed to be viewing impartiality. The age of the Internet poses its own problems to the jury system - as do the so-called human rights of those sat on a jury - but surely we could withdraw jurors from society for a period of time? Perhaps I'm joking, perhaps I'm not.

Winsor's trial was curiously interrupted by the occurrence of a Sunday and the commencement of the Cornwall assizes on the Monday (Winsor's trial was being held in Devon). It was the custom at the time to deprive juries of "meat, drink, fire, and even candlelight" during the length of their deliberations. This undoubtably led to some rushed decisions for men eager to be rid of such a situation. However, in Winsor's case the struggle to fit to the prescribed schedule caused the judge to discharge the jury. Winsor would receive a second trial. The London Review noted later: 'There were three other courses open to him. He might have locked up the jury until the Monday morning, which would have been inhuman; he might have carried them with him to Cornwall in carts, which would have been grotesque; or he might have received their verdict on Sunday, which, to say the least of it, would have been a proceeding of very doubtful legality. Here therefore wisely adopted the expedient of discharging them after ascertaining there was no chance whatever of their agreeing, an in so doing acted in pursuance of modern practice, although in contravention of ancient precedent." Winsor's death sentence was later commuted in consideration of the period of time her trial had been extended for.

Trials today are much more complex than those of 1865. There is usually much more information for a jury to process and more complex information at that. With the advent of sophisticated post-mortem examinations and other improved technologies there is usually much more for the jury to absorb. That said, I would maintain that our current trial system is unnecessarily convoluted. I do believe in the trial by jury system to an extent, but that is primarily because I do not believe in the honesty of the judiciary in our fine country. But juries are made up of human beings and, in an age where information is itching at our fingertips, some of those human beings must be controlled.

Oh, we won't go back to locking juries up without food or water until they make their decision. The European Court of Human Rights would have a field day with that (and that's a rant for another post). But the idea of monitoring jurors, especially their Internet habits, has to be considered. My primary fear is that the cost of this spying would be seen to vastly outweigh the benefits given by it (and would 'Human Rights' even allow such a process?). The outcome of the Joanne Fraill case could be further-reaching than anyone understands if it adds fuel to those arguments searching for juries to be dispensed with altogether.

*All quotations relating to the Charlotte Winsor case are taken from The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art and Science; 27 Jan 1866.

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