Trial by jury questioned

By Edward Gay

Juror's illness aborts marathon trial in third week.

Authorities should review the need for jurors. Photo / Martin Sykes
Authorities should review the need for jurors. Photo / Martin Sykes

A judge has questioned whether lengthy drug trials should be heard by jurors after one expected to take eight weeks was aborted.

The call from Judge David Wilson, QC, came as the methamphetamine trial involving three accused was dropped as it entered its third week in the Auckland District Court.

In a ruling made on Thursday and issued yesterday, Judge Wilson said authorities should examine the possibility of having judges decide on complex drugs cases without a jury because of the investment in court time and lawyers.

In the aborted trial, two jurors had already been excused when a third produced a medical certificate saying they would not be able to sit on the jury for two weeks.

This took the jury panel to below the minimum of 10 needed.

The three accused could have chosen to have their case heard by the nine remaining jurors, but lawyers for the trio exercised their right to have the trial aborted.

In his ruling, the judge said jury commitments in long methamphetamine trials were "extensive", as they often relied on a large amount of detailed electronic surveillance which had to be played to the court.

"I noticed particularly yesterday, where there were no technical or other interruptions to the evidence, that a whole day of almost unbroken reading of text messages and playing of intercepted telephone calls was a very taxing experience for the jury and it was with deep relief that they were released at 4.30pm," he said.

Authorities should review the need for jurors and look at the possibility of having methamphetamine trials heard by a judge alone because the costs of trials "can only be considerable".

"They are always complex, they are always intensely detailed."

Judge Wilson directed that his minute be sent to the Law Commission and the Chief District Court Judge, Jan Doogue.

Crown Solicitor Simon Moore, SC, said while the judge's hands were tied, aborting the trial was "wholly unsatisfactory" for the accused and the community.

He said the costs of getting a methamphetamine trial just to the courtroom door were huge, and he would also be asking the Law Commission and Crown Law to look into the issue.

"They are highly complex and difficult trials, and the prospect of starting the whole thing again and empanelling another jury - always with the risk of what happened in this trial could happen again - means there needs to be a long, hard look taken at this issue."

Defence lawyers who represented two of the accused in the case said they were asking for a cautious approach to be taken.

Graham Newell said that rather than remove a defendant's right to chose trial by jury, it would be better to thoroughly screen jurors for their availability and suitability.

The complexity of drug trials made some of them "akin to watching a soap opera", he said.

Fellow defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg said supplying methamphetamine carried a maximum sentence of life in prison, so the bar for having a judge-alone trial should be set high.

University of Auckland associate professor of law Bill Hodge said Judge Wilson's idea had merits and a public debate was needed on the issue.

Professor Hodge said while he was in favour of jury trials, some cases were so complex that they required a judge alone to decide them.

"Sometimes it's too much to expect a jury to give two to three months of their life."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said it was not possible to tell how much the trial cost the taxpayer.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Judith Collins said the minister could not comment on individual cases, but a defendant's right to choose a jury trial was a fundamental principle in the justice system.

But changes to the Criminal Procedure Act next year would allow judge-alone trials for offences with a maximum term of imprisonment of less than two years.

The changes would not affect serious methamphetamine trials.

Judge-alone trials

* Bridgecorp directors Rod Petricevic and Rob Roest were found guilty in the High Court at Auckland on 10 Securities Act charges, and Peter Steigrad was found guilty on six of the 10 charges he faced. Petricevic and Roest were also convicted on a further eight charges brought under the Crimes Act and Companies Act. The trio went through a four-month trial on charges of misleading investors.

* William Yan, also known as Yang Liu and Yong Ming Yan, was found not guilty in the High Court at Auckland of four charges relating to false declarations on immigration papers in 2001 and 2002 and one of using false written statements to get citizenship.

* Tony Campbell and Russell Mendoza were convicted in the Auckland District Court on four charges of wilfully ill-treating an animal and firearms charges after shooting 33 of their neighbour's dogs in Wellsford.

additional reporting: Isaac Davison

- APNZ

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 23 Dec 2014 02:40:02 Processing Time: 330ms