Jurors may run for the hills if Pickton trial comes calling

Globe and Mail

November 9, 2006

VANCOUVER -- Garry Gaudet knows what he'd do if he was called for jury duty in the Robert Pickton murder trial: Run for the hills.

Mr. Gaudet has already served on three juries, the last one being a murder trial involving an elderly woman who was stomped to death in Nanaimo. The trial lasted a month.

"The crime scene pictures were horrendous. Honestly, I'm still haunted by them," recalls Mr. Gaudet, who lives in Lantzville on Vancouver Island.

"Being on a trial like that can take a real emotional toll on you. I can't even begin to imagine what the jurors in the Pickton trial are in for. And that's just one reason, I think, that a case like that should be heard by judge alone."

Mr. Gaudet is right. It's time the courts and law makers in this country took a look at what's fair when it comes to asking citizens to give up their day-to-day lives to serve on a jury.

The Pickton trial could last a year or longer. Jurors will be picked next month. The lucky 12 will each be paid $20 a day for the first 10 days, $60 for days 11 to 49 and then $100 a day for each day after. If the Pickton trial averaged three days a week for a year, a juror would be paid just over $13,000. And they're on the hook for supplying their own lunch each day, too. Yes, judges will often take a person's financial situation into account during jury selection and yes, some companies will continue to pay an employee's salary while serving on a jury. But many, many won't. Especially for a trial that lasts months and months.

I know the right to a trial by jury is one of the fundamental cornerstones of our judicial system, one dating back to the beginning of the Commonwealth trial system. So what? Times change. The law has been reformed in other areas since that time. Why not look at the role of juries?

How many people can afford to ditch their jobs for a year? Even six months. Is it fair to ask a juror to take out a loan so he can make his mortgage payments while serving on a trial of exceptional length? Most lawyers you talk to are in favour of keeping juries, regardless of the length of the trial. Gee, I wonder why? They're one of the groups that are exempt from jury duty in Canada.

So are police officers and members of certain government agencies. Those who are wealthy, savvy and well connected can often talk their way out of jury duty as well -- leaving those who can least afford to take time off work to do the job.

Mr. Gaudet asks: "Is it reasonable that the law can, in effect, put blameless people under a form of house arrest for periods of several months to more than a year? Jurors are quite abused by the system. There are awful emotional, intellectual and financial costs to serving on a jury for a trial of a serious offence.

"Jurors' lives are absolutely disrupted and they are paid a pittance for their trouble. What's worse, vastly increased demands have been placed on them since the adoption of the Charter and a Supreme Court decision requiring full disclosure of every scrap of police investigation material instead of a summary of evidence as in the past."

It should come as no surprise that more people than ever are avoiding jury duty in North America. Jury duty evasion is as high as 60 to 80 per cent in some U.S. states. In some districts, jury evasion has been so profound that judges have ordered deputies to round up people off the streets to do the job.

Many states are now trying to sweeten the pot to make jury duty more attractive. Arizona has now established a "lengthy trial fund," which helps address the discrepancy between a juror's court salary and his or her real job.

Even B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal agrees that asking people to take a year out of their lives to sit on a jury is unrealistic. He says criminal trials generally take far too long, much longer than they once did, and something needs to be done to shorten them.

Mr. Oppal believes that trials of exceptional length should probably be heard by judge alone.

"I think it's preferable from a convenience perspective and a time perspective," he says, "but right now the Constitution gives the accused the right to have a jury of his peers."

Then the Constitution, as it pertains to the Criminal Code, needs to be amended. Or, as occurred in the lengthy Air-India trial, the Crown and the defence need to agree up front to have the case heard by judge alone.

Right now, a potential juror's only option is to run for the hills.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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