THE BLOG

Judge vs Jury? You Decide, an Oscar Pistorius Debrief.

13/10/2014 14:13 BST | Updated 13/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The night it all hung in the balance for Oscar Pistorius, (a few weeks ago now), I was chatting to a lawyer friend of mine over dinner. As we discussed the case, she made an interesting point re the jury Vs judge debate. I'd never really stopped to question the considerable difference in approach between these two punishment-dishing-out-bodies - because they represent, although it seems obvious to point out, two hugely different methodologies. The former presumes that combined minds from all walks of life, the vast majority filled with very little legal knowledge, will come to the correct conclusion collaboratively, whilst the latter supposes that an individual mind, well-versed in the workings of the law will arrive at the correct finish point.

We've all seen the sheep mentality or power in numbers complex play out in our own lives, people do and say things they otherwise wouldn't simply because others are doing so and they're swayed by the general consensus. Have we ever stopped to question whether this may be taking place when it matters most in our courtrooms? And if there is a difference in outcome when comparing judge dictated sentences with jury led ones, I wonder who is the most lenient or compassionate?

When allowed to enter into heated debate about a given case, I can only imagine (although I should admit at this point that I'm yet to 'do' jury service), that strong characters argue their points passionately and as such, a certain level of coercion, albeit perhaps unintended, takes place. Becoming a number in a larger group of 'innocent' or 'guilty' believers seems far less intimidating a prospect than that which a judge has before him or herself. Perhaps it's therefore easier to 'send down' an individual when you are not solely responsible for their fate. You can hide behind the lion's share.

On the other side of this debate lies the question that - as human nature allows us to become desensitised to those things we experience frequently, no matter how difficult or distressing - are judges less overwhelmed by and more at ease with the sentence they finally give? (In relation to a jury panel, that is.) It has become commonplace for them, it's their bread and butter after all. By the same token, are we non-legal folk less likely to want to dish out a punishment that is entirely alien and extreme to us when a member of the jury?

To me, it seems the major distinction in the judge Vs jury debate is this: Judges have to answer to people, their profession and the media. Those on jury service have only to answer to their own consciences. Which is better? I have no idea. But it seemed like a fitting time to ask the question.