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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Court Report: Jury Trial

May 8, 2008

Whilst heading towards Pipitea campus, I had a surge of spontaneity and visited the District Court. The staff at reception directed me to level 3 where a jury trial was to commence at 10am. However a courtroom mix-up had delayed proceedings and led to my chatting with counsel. This chat led to greater things and counsel offered to request my media accreditation, a necessity to be able to properly report on a case. The judge approved their request and I was offered a desk with a jug of water.

Due to the nature of the case, there are certain details that have been suppressed. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s justice system aims to promote transparency. The indictment was one charge of unlawful sexual violation. As the Crown case was put before the court, I looked at the jury – some stared at the ground, others looked on in shock. The Crown case was that the complainant, when 9 years old, was sexually assaulted by his uncle. The complainant was residing at his grandparents’ home in Lower Hutt. Due to the grandparents being out, he was in the care of his uncle. The two of them watched Gone in 60 Seconds before the complainant excused himself to the bathroom. When he returned, he was pulled to the ground and sexually assaulted by his uncle. It is alleged that the assault lasted 5-7 minutes.

In Court, the complainant claimed that during the assault his uncle was uncommunicative but breathing heavily. He requested his uncle to stop, pleading “Ouch, that hurts. Please stop.” Later his uncle did stop and the complainant walked to his bedroom and cried. The complainant is now 15 years old and remembers that after the event he was feeling “confused, sad, [and] anger.” He recalls playing Grand Theft Auto 3 on his Playstation for the remainder of the night, his uncle sitting on the couch behind him. It took him 5 years to build up the courage to tell his mother. Upon finding out in July last year, his mother contacted police. Yet the complainant’s mother struggled under cross-examination. Defence lawyers asked her about her son’s willingness to continually stay at his grandparent’s home, despite the fact that his uncle would also be staying there. She stated that “He wouldn’t have been happy to go there if only [his uncle] was there,” but her answers were opening up the possibility for an argument by defence lawyers. However, certain issues arose following the lunch break. The court went into chambers and counsel submitted their concerns regarding information leaked during cross-examination. The judge consequently ordered a mistrial on grounds which have been suppressed. Therefore a new trial, with a new jury, has been scheduled for a later date.

Sexual assault trials have been frequently criticised. In March, The Dominion Post reported concerns regarding child sexabuse victims being bullied and misled by defence lawyers. The Dominion Post also reported a trend in jurors expecting corroborative evidence, described what’s known as the ‘CSI effect’ where jurors anticipate forensic proof. In the case at hand, only 6 witnesses were to be called by the Crown and the majority of evidence came from the complainant. This is common among sexual assaults where there is often little evidence other than the complainant’s testimony.

With the case at hand, it is hard to ascertain how the victim’s treatment under cross-examination would have developed. It is also hard to predict whether the jury would have acquitted the accused based on the majority of evidence being by the complainant. What is clear however is that the rights of the accused were taken into immense consideration. Counsel, together with the judge, were meticulous in ensuring that the accused had a fair trial. This is a necessary right for the accused, yet the court system may indeed fail to reciprocate these rights when it comes to victims.

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