How do societal misconceptions affect the criminal justice system?
Alycia discusses how her time as a juror opened her eyes to wider issues in society surrounding definitions of sexual assault and how this may impact the criminal justice system.
In 2019, I sat on a jury for a rape case. When you are called for jury service, there's no way out of it, you are required by law to attend. As soon as you turn 18, you’re eligible - so being selected at 19 meant I was the youngest member of the jury.
Out of the 12 people on the jury, there were a good ratio of men to women. It was interesting to observe how the different genders responded to a case where a sexual offence was the crime in question.
Where the case itself had many complexities and both a compelling defense and prosecution, I was shocked to gain an insight into the societal misconceptions surrounding what rape actually is. Many members of the jury who are standard members of the public like you and I, did not understand basic concepts such as rape and consent. How can a jury complete a reliable and accurate service if each member holds a different definition and understanding of these concepts? It simply cannot.
Rape is defined by the Metropolitan Police as ‘when a person intentionally penetrates another's vagina, anus or mouth with a penis, without the other person's consent’. The Metropolitan Police also define ‘assault by penetration’ as ‘when a person penetrates another person's vagina or anus with any part of the body other than a penis, or by using an object, without the person's consent’. While these definitions may appear obvious, many often consider rape only in relation to the penetration of the vagina by a penis. However, this is not the sole meaning of rape, and it is evident that many do not consider this.
Another area of concern was the jury’s understanding of the term ‘consent’. In modern day education, schools now repeatedly teach the definition of consent. This is clearly taught through use of scenarios, lessons, and accounts from victims. Another well-known way to educate on consent is the classic ‘Tea and Consent’ video published by Thames Valley Police which now has 6.7 million views on YouTube. It's impossible not to understand what consent is in the modern day. Unfortunately, older generations did not receive this same level of understanding on these crucial concepts including consent, and sadly, this was highly prevalent during my time as a juror.
During deliberations, one member of the jury stated, ‘if she took her own trousers down, it wasn’t rape’, despite the victim clearly stating ‘I want to leave now’ at the time of the incident. This same juror was selected as the ‘jury foreman’ who delivered the ‘not guilty’ verdict to a previous sex offender and rapist. Let alone, this member was a senior teacher in a secondary school, an institution which requires its staff to protect, understand, help and educate students. How can we have faith in people who hold these views and are educating the young people of our country?
I left feeling deflated - to say the very least. I had nightmares about the case, being a 19-year-old girl sat on a jury for the rape of another 19-year-old girl. I felt like I had let her down, like I hadn’t done enough to argue against these people who did not understand basic conceptions of rape and consent. But in reality, the jury was 11 to 1 - myself being the lone 1 of course. I couldn’t possibly have changed 11 people's minds. As the youngest member of the jury, other jurors saw me as inexperienced and emotionally invested in the case, being of the same demographic as the victim. My ideas were disregarded despite my efforts. Following the delivery of the verdict, my heart sank, but knowing I tried my best to argue for what I believed in - I felt I had done as much as I could. However, this didn’t appear to be the case for other jurors whose faces had changed. They now looked guilty and regretful, possibly knowing they had made the wrong decision, but it was too late. They thanked me for arguing against them, patted me on the back and said, ‘well done’ and that I should be proud of myself for sticking up for what I believed in.
Years later, I cannot forget about this experience. I can’t help but think about what the misconceptions surrounding sexual assault mean for the criminal justice system. In this case, they ultimately meant that a previous sex offender was found ‘not guilty’ and after just a short time fulfilling the rest of his probation, will be free to walk the streets again.
So as a society, and as individuals, we must endeavor to do more to educate and to challenge others who fail to understand what constitutes as rape and what consent is. We must challenge those older than us, who have not been fortunate enough to be provided with education on these concepts. We must make efforts to stand up for victims whose sex offenders are not sentenced in cases where misconceptions mean incorrect decisions are made. We must educate people who are both older than us and younger than us. And we must never feel inferior or guilty for trying to do so.