The jury went out in the trial of Ronnie Dunbar today. He’s accused of the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon in September 2006. He denies both that charge and a second one of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy.
We had heard closing speeches from both the prosecution and defence on Thursday before the court rose for the weekend. This morning Judge Barry White finished his charge. After five weeks of evidence it was widely expected that the charge would go on for some time. A judges charge takes two parts. First the outlining of the law required by the jury to reach their decision – the definitions of murder, manslaughter, direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, corroboration…these are the usual things that fall under necessary law for a murder trial. I’m not going into the definitions here – I’m a journalist not a lawyer and even though I’ve heard each definition dozens of times I’m not going to put them down in writing just yet.
The second part of the charge is the summary of the main points of evidence. This is the bit that can take a while. Mr Justice Barry White has this part of his charge down to a fine art though. I’ve never seen anyone summarise so neatly and so quickly – despite all indications to the contrary with so much evidence to wade through – he had everything precisely put by the time we rose for lunch.
After the charge you have the requisitions, when the barristers get to tell the judge the bits they feel he missed. They can take a while but not often with Judge White so the jury retired to their room a little before three.
As soon as that door closes, that’s the moment the jury wait starts. All the speeches have been made, there’s nothing more to argue. It’s now all down to the twelve men and women of the jury to come to their decision. All the rest of us; press, barristers, gardai, courts staff, not to mention the accused, can do is wait. And wait we do.
A jury wait is a curious thing. It’s unlike any other kind of waiting I know. That knock on the door can come at any time so even though the general atmosphere is relaxed and chatty there’s an air of tension. On the one hand everything happens along old established routine the final outcome rests in the hands of those twelve individuals who, in all probability, know nothing of the ritual and their legal knowledge is restricted to what they might have read in books, newspapers or on TV.
I’ve written here before about what an unexpected beast a jury is and I’ll stand by that assumption. Once that door closes behind the last of the twelve everyone in the court is locked to their whim. We get a break when they do, we wait while they deliberate. Everyone is in the same boat. We wait for their decision.
This is the time when people chat, pass round sweets, share newspapers. No matter how organised you are going into a jury wait with a stack of stuff to do, you will end up doing precious little of it. The underlying tension does it’s work and it’s almost impossible to focus. Everyone tries to guess when the verdict will come but it’s a pointless exercise. You might as well try the old chestnut, how long is a piece of string.
So far the jury have been deliberating for just over two hours. There was a moment of excitment when three of them appeared at the wood panelled door leading to their room, but all they wanted was a smoke break. They’ve long gone home now but we’ll be back in position tomorrow morning bright and early.
Brilliant and explanatory (is that the word?) piece, thanks!