Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Unreasonable verdict and reasonable doubt

In Pell v The Queen [2020] HCA 12 (7 April 2020) the High Court made some important distinctions between fact-finders and appellate courts considering conviction appeals. At [37]:

“... Just as the performance by a court of criminal appeal of its functions does not involve the substitution of trial by an appeal court for trial by a jury, so, generally speaking, the appeal court should not seek to duplicate the function of the jury in its assessment of the credibility of the witnesses where that assessment is dependent upon the evaluation of the witnesses in the witness-box. The jury performs its function on the basis that its decisions are made unanimously, and after the benefit of sharing the jurors' subjective assessments of the witnesses. Judges of courts of criminal appeal do not perform the same function in the same way as the jury, or with the same advantages that the jury brings to the discharge of its function.”

And, when assessing the reasonableness of a verdict of guilty, [39]:

The function of the court of criminal appeal in determining a ground that contends that the verdict of the jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence, in a case such as the present, proceeds upon the assumption that the evidence of the complainant was assessed by the jury to be credible and reliable. The court examines the record to see whether, notwithstanding that assessment – either by reason of inconsistencies, discrepancies, or other inadequacy; or in light of other evidence – the court is satisfied that the jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt.” (footnote omitted)
This reflects the need for a fact-finder to keep an open mind until all the evidence has been given, and after the addresses of counsel for each side and the judge’s summing up and instructions on the law have been delivered. It would be wrong, for example, for a juror to think, after hearing the evidence of a prosecution witness, that that evidence was convincing and sufficient on its own to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So, in referring at [39] to the appellate court’s proceeding on the basis that the jury found the evidence of the complainant to be credible and reliable, the High Court was not suggesting that the jury could properly have done that peremptorily in isolation. Really, the appellate court asks, should the jury have recognised that there was a reasonable doubt about guilt?
The appellate court does not ordinarily need to hear or view a recording of the evidence at trial (at [36]): 

“...There may be cases where there is something particular in the video-recording that is apt to affect an appellate court's assessment of the evidence, which can only be discerned visually or by sound. In such cases, there will be a real forensic purpose to the appellate court's examination of the video-recording. But such cases will be exceptional ....”

So, what about the facts? I know it is said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but that is not a rule of law. The strange thing about this case is that the alleged criminal behaviour, being unusual and surely of a compulsive nature, was accompanied by so few complaints. If it had happened as alleged, you would expect there to be a multitude of similar complaints covering criminality over many years. Frequent association with young choristers would, one might suppose, make repetition more likely. True enough, juries are told to consider only the evidence that has been given, but they are also told to use their common sense and experience when assessing it. Consistently with this, a defendant’s good character is admissible as evidence to challenge the credibility of an allegation. In this case the High Court held that the jury should have had a reasonable doubt about guilt, but we may well think that on a common sense view the probability of innocence is virtually certain.

Update: For a full critique of the intermediate appellate court decision in Pell, see Dennis J Baker, "Accusation as Proof: Uncorroborated Historic Sexual Abuse Allegations" (2020) 84(1) Journal of Criminal Law 1.