Friday, December 20, 2013

Perverse acquittals and the limits of the law

Whether you are a stranded speluncean explorer or a shipwrecked sailor adrift and starving, the law applies to you. Even where you enter into a contract agreeing that the ordinary law will not apply, you can only do that if some law allows you to, and even then the law requires you to stick to what you have argeed.

Can the law embrace illegality?

Are there times when a sensible person, when told what the law requires, can be permitted to say, "Oh, don't be silly, the law's an ass"?

Can jurors be permitted to return verdicts of not guilty that are contrary to law? These are variously called perverse verdicts, conscience verdicts, merciful verdicts, or instances of jury lenity reflecting the jury's innate sense of justice. See the discussion here on 15 November 2013.

In very limited circumstances the law will recognise that jurors may return conscience verdicts: B(SC12/2013) v R [2013] NZSC 151 (19 December 2013). Here, on an appeal against conviction, the relevant issue was whether two verdicts were inconsistent. The focus in such appeals is on whether the conviction is lawful, not on the acquittal [105], but the acquittal is relevant to the extent that it reveals an irreconcilable error in the conviction. Opinions may differ, as they did here, on whether the acquittal could be explained logically without impugning the reasoning behind the conviction. But without a logical explanation for the inconsistency it might be possible, held the majority, to account for the acquittal as an instance of jury lenity, without impugning the conviction.

Elias CJ did not consider that this case was one of necessary inconsistency in verdicts [30]. There may have been a reasonable possibility, she held, that the prosecutor had not excluded an innocent belief in relation to that charge, while proving all the elements of the other. But she went further than that, and refused to accept that a jury may return a "lenient" verdict [28]:

" ... in the core function of determining guilt or innocence I do not think there is scope for other than conscientious discharge of the responsibility to decide on the evidence and according to law."

The majority disagreed. McGrath, Glazebrook and Arnold JJ [105]:

" ... If the court finds it difficult to understand on what basis the jury accepted a complainant's evidence at one point and not another, it is entitled to consider whether the jury may have departed from its instructions in giving a not guilty verdict, out of an innate sense of justice."

They held that while the difference in verdicts could have a logical explanation, this was also one of those rare cases where the jury might have thought that the conviction sufficiently captured the defendant's culpability for what was in substance a single interaction with the complainant [106].

William Young J said he agreed with the joint judgment [110], [131].

The reasoning which led the majority to accept that jury leniency can have legal effect occurs at [99], which is worth quoting in full:

"Potentially, however, jury leniency undermines the rule of law, creates uncertainty and operates unequally as between comparable defendants. [footnote: See, for example, R v Morgentaler [1988] 1 SCR 30 at [77] per Dickson CJC (with whom Lamer J joined); and Andrew D Leipold "Rethinking Jury Nullification" (1996) 82 Va L Rev 253.] Importantly for present purposes, jury leniency is in direct conflict with the premises on which jury trials are conducted, as reflected in trial judges' instructions to juries. But while jury leniency may not be encouraged – indeed, it is actively discouraged in jury instructions – that does not necessarily mean that its existence must always be ignored. There is widespread acknowledgement that juries do sometimes apply their innate sense of justice by convicting a defendant on one count and acquitting on another, even though the evidence would support convictions on both, and a general (albeit not universal) acceptance that the fact that this sometimes happens is, on balance, a beneficial feature of the jury system (the jury acting as the conscience of the community). Where an appellate court considers that a jury's "not guilty" verdict is explicable on this basis, it seems perverse that the court should be required to quash the conviction because it is not logically consistent with the acquittal. While logic in the law is important, it is not everything."

As I have previously said, a perverse verdict is not available at the request of the defendant, and this case demonstrates that it is, in contrast and when rarely available at all, a weapon for the prosecutor on appeal. While it seems comforting to think that a jury might be lenient when the letter of the law conflicts with conscience, there is attraction in the Chief Justice's position which would disallow illegality as a basis for upholding a conviction.

But there's more in this case: propensity, reputation, prior sexual experience! ... Later ...

[Update: Lord Judge referred to perverse verdicts as constitutional safeguards against barbaric laws in a discussion with Chief Justice Roberts on the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the first issue of Magna Carta, available here on YouTube.]