The world will be watching today as the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis Police Officer accused of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, begins. The distressing footage of Mr Floyd’s death was seen by millions of people and sparked huge protests on both sides of the Atlantic against structural racism and Police brutality. In the US, those protests often turned violent and episodes of looting occurred in several cities.
In those circumstances, the rigorous US procedure of jury selection, designed to weed out any bias or prejudice amongst the Jury towards one side or the other, will be even more complicated and fraught with difficulties. Potential jurors will have to complete a 16-page questionnaire including such questions as how many times they viewed the video of George Floyd’s death and whether they personally participated in any of the sweeping “Black Lives Matter” protests – or, indeed, had homes or businesses damaged during the riots associated with the same.
The jury selection process is therefore likely to be a highly contested ‘battlefield’ between the legal teams for Prosecution and Defence; with each set of lawyers entitled to ask the Trial Judge to dismiss potential jurors on the basis of perceived bias – or even, in a limited number of cases, for no specified reason at all (but what, we might imagine would be bias which is not explicit/ admitted to, but which the lawyers perceive on the basis of a juror’s racial/social/gender profile). Those latter dismissals are themselves open to challenge on the grounds of racial or sexual discrimination.
The selection of the 16 people who will make up the final Jury is therefore likely to take weeks to be completed, before the Trial proper commences. It is not at all uncommon in high stakes cases such as this for each party’s lawyers to bring in specialist ‘jury selection’ consultants who will help them analyse the background of the potential jurors, their questionnaire responses and decide how best to deploy their “peremptory challenges.”
Here in the UK the selection of the 12 members of a Crown Court Jury, to hear criminal cases, is more randomised and subject to much less proactive – or partisan – vetting. UK lawyers, for example, have no right of “peremptory challenge” (to request a juror be dismissed without specifying a reason), and there are no mechanisms designed to ‘balance’ the makeup of the jury on the grounds of race or gender.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that UK law does require people to recuse themselves, or to be removed by the Judge from a Jury panel, if they are obviously biased or have a personal connection to the parties involved in a Trial (which might mean knowing not only a victim, defendant or witness but one of the lawyers or Police officers involved in the case).
That type of bias/ potential prejudice – close connection with a Police Officer who was part of the criminal investigation – reared its head in a particularly shocking way following the conviction of three men for the murder of Lynford Brewster, a Cardiff man, in June 2016. The three accused men went to trial in December 2016 at Cardiff Crown Court, and were duly convicted by the jury and each sentenced to life imprisonment.
Tragically, one of the members of that Jury was Lauren Jones, the girlfriend of the son of DC Rebecca Bryant of South Wales Police – who shortly after Lynford’s murder had been assigned as Family Liaison Officer to Lynford’s grieving mother, June Whittaker. DC Bryant had been in regular contact with June and other members of Lynford’s family during the investigation, and indeed it was DC Bryant who had accompanied June to the mortuary to identify her son’s body. DC Bryant had also prepared witness statements and was actually present at Court, with Lynford’s family, when the jury including her son’s girlfriend was empanelled.
During the empanelling process a number of potential jurors quite properly ‘disqualified’ themselves by confirming connections with the case – one being the mother-in-law of Lynford’s brother, the other knowing a witness who was a friend of one of the men accused of the murder. Both of these jurors were excused. There can have been no doubt, therefore, that all of the potential jurors were aware of the duty to declare such ‘conflicts of interest’ – but not only did Lauren Jones fail to declare her connection with one of the key officers involved in the criminal investigation, in a terrible dereliction of her duty, so did that officer herself.
In fact, to make things worse, text messages that were later discovered, revealed that DC Bryant actively encouraged Lauren Jones to keep their relationship ‘secret’ –
“Don’t tell any of them who u r to me in case they think I’ve told u about it although u know I haven’t xxx.”
The messages also revealed that Ms Jones had another potentially prejudicial connection to the case, as she was a teacher at the school attended by one of Lynford Brewster’s nephews and therefore saw Lynford’s sister on a regular basis as one of the school parents. Ms Jones failed to declare this interest as well, and DC Bryant said nothing about it either.
It subsequently became clear that throughout the weeks of the murder trial, DC Bryant and Lauren Jones (or, as we might say, the Family Liaison Officer for the murdered man’s relatives and a Juror in whose hands rested the fate of the accused) were in regular contact with one another – engaging in socialising together, sharing lifts home from Court, exchanging texts and telephone calls and – most callously- discussing lying to the Court about Ms Jones having an unavoidable appointment because the Trial dates were putting in jeopardy her pre-Christmas trip to the hairdressers…
When this sordid state of affairs inevitably came to light in February 2017 – someone evidently ‘tipped off’ the Defence lawyers that Ms Jones had a connection with DC Bryant – Lynford’s mother was contacted by South Wales Police with the awful news that DC Bryant’s conduct was being investigated and there was a real prospect of this leading to her son’s killers having their convictions quashed. The devastating effect which this news had upon a grieving mother who at that time was trying to come to terms with the brutal loss of her son can well be imagined. June felt utterly betrayed by DC Bryant, and the mounting ‘nightmare’ of the original verdict being quashed, which would lead to a re-trial and the possibility that the killers might ultimately escape justice, led June to attempt to take her own life in July 2017. June was discovered by one of her daughters after taking a deliberate overdose of medication, and rushed to hospital, where fortunately the doctors were able to save her life. A terrible double-tragedy for her family had narrowly been averted.
As was sadly anticipated, the Court of Appeal in July 2018 quashed the convictions of the three men accused of murdering Lynford Brewster, and spoke in the following terms about DC Bryant’s reprehensible conduct-
“The police inquiry’s dealings with the officer reveal that she lied in the initial stages to two officers about having had any relationship with the juror, leading to the inference that she realized that her connections with the juror were improper in the circumstances. It also appears that she was not truthful about the point at which she knew that the juror was involved in this murder trial.
This material reveals a shocking state of affairs. We have no hesitation in holding that the clearest case of bias on the part of the juror is established. Any fair-minded and informed observer would conclude from the facts that there was a real possibility or danger that the juror was biased. Despite ample opportunity, she failed to declare either her connection with an officer whom she knew was closely connected with the victim’s family or her connection with the deceased’s sister or her concerns about how that person might react if they met following a not guilty verdict. Moreover, the juror had shown herself willing to participate in a deception of the court in order to pursue relatively trivial arrangements for her own private satisfaction. Both parties failed utterly in their civic duty as citizens and both of them must have known that at the time.
Since the officer’s disciplinary proceedings have yet to take place, we say nothing further as to the outcome of them. However, it is crystal clear that this juror should never have sat on this trial and that the assertion of objective bias is fully made out.
In the circumstances, this trial was fatally flawed and the safety of the convictions is totally undermined. The folly of the juror and the police officer have wasted vast amounts of time and cost the public a great deal of money. Moreover, the agony for the victim’s family is inevitably prolonged. We very much regret that fact.
However, there has not been a fair and proper trial because of the conduct of the officer and the juror and in those circumstances it is our duty to act…”
The silver lining to these terrible events, is that the three men were eventually convicted, for a second and final time, of Lynford’s murder and their life- sentences re-imposed, in March 2019, whilst DC Bryant was convicted of gross misconduct in June 2019 and dismissed without notice from the Police service.
None of those facts could soften the blow for June, and the other members of Lynford’s close family, of having to live for a second time through the trial re-counting in graphic detail Lynford’s murder, or of having to come to terms with DC Bryant’s betrayal. As June said, after learning of the contents of the text messages between DC Bryant and Lauren Jones – it was as if Lynford’s life didn’t matter to DC Bryant, as if it were all a joke to her.
If ever there was a story to reinforce the importance of Jury members being honest about potential prejudice in a case, this is it. I am currently acting on behalf of June is seeking compensation from South Wales Police for the mental trauma she continues to experience as a result of these events. It was clearly with much regret, and sympathy for June and her family, that the Judges of the Criminal Court of Appeal had to do their duty; it is a profound pity that DC Bryant apparently considered that entertaining her son’s girlfriend and helping her to arrange hair-appointments were of greater importance than her own duty as a Police Officer.