The new novel Dice by Claire Baylis, an insightful account of a criminal trial as told by members of the jury, has prompted me to reflect on the many criminal trials I conducted as a prosecutor in the Auckland Crown Solicitor’s office – and to realise that I had rarely given any serious thought to the reality of the lives of the jurors I was trying, on behalf of my client, to convince.
I worked on mainly criminal trials, including rapes and murders, in my 20 years acting for the Crown. Then as now, the Crown prosecutor could exercise six challenges when the jury was being selected. Lawyers for prosecution and defence had a jury list recording the names and addresses of the potential jurors. With that limited knowledge, my practice was to turn around to watch each juror when their name was called out, as they walked from the back of the court towards the jury box to take their seat. I did that to make a quick, but obviously superficial, assessment of whether I thought the individual juror coming forward was someone I would feel comfortable talking to during the trial.
I well remember a civil jury trial when I acted for the Crown to defend the Attorney-General and the Police who were sued by three plaintiffs – famously, they became known as the Clowns – claiming significant damages for assault and personal injury caused by the Red Squad during a protest against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in Auckland. Following my practice, I allowed a smartly dressed, elegant young woman onto the jury. She became the jury foreperson. My defence was unsuccessful. The plaintiffs were awarded considerable damages. After the trial, enquiries by the police revealed that the air hostess foreman was married to someone with convictions under the Harbours Act, probably for protesting the visit of a US warship. One never knows with juries.
In Dice, the author imagines the different perspectives of the 12 jurors hearing the evidence and deciding the outcome of four young male defendants charged with a range of sex crimes. It’s alleged they chose the nature of the crimes and the identity of their three victims by throwing a dice.
Baylis, a law lecturer and participant in jury research, is uniquely qualified to tell this story. She unfolds her plot in the context of the trial, set in the High Court in Rotorua, beginning with the selection of the jury, the choosing of the jury foreman, the prosecutor’s opening address and the statement by defence counsel. As the trial progresses with the three girls (referred to as complainants) and other witnesses telling their side of the story, the evidence given is described by the different jury members, each of whom brings their individual preconceptions, experiences and biases to what they are observing and hearing.
Courtroom dramas routinely get away with a certain amount of poetic licence. In Dice, the courtroom scenes are, almost without exception, realistic and accurate. But there are a few descriptions of questions asked of witnesses in a manner which would not be allowed in a real court hearing. For example, when the prosecutor leads the evidence of the first witness Caleb, who had pulled out of the game at an early stage, he asks Caleb to tell the jury about when the Dice Game was first mentioned.
Caleb answers, “We were playing Smash or Pass, and then Lee says he’s got this idea to mix it up, eh. He said we had to shake a dice and do something to the chick we shook.”
Prosecutor: “So did you all agree to play the game then, Caleb?”
“Nah, not then.”
The fact of whether, when and where the four defendants had agreed to play the game had not yet been established by any evidence. The leading question, suggesting that they all agreed to play the game at that stage, should not have been asked. Rather, the prosecutor should have said, “Who was present when this was talked about?”
There is no single protagonist. The central characters are the 12 jury members who each describe the course of the trial as they see it. They hear what the three girls say happened to them on four different occasions when the defendants used the roll of the dice to choose what each of them would do to each girl. The four defendants, the lawyers and the judge are only secondary players.
Throughout Dice, the author successfully moves from the more formal language used by the lawyers and the judge in court to the much more casual terminology of the witnesses. The eccentricities and foibles of each of the jurors is carefully described. When the time comes for the jury to debate what its verdicts on each of the charges will be, the reader has some appreciation of how and why the verdicts were reached.
The substantial focus of the novel is the criminal trial process and the role of the jury in that process. The unstated but obvious issue is whether that process is appropriate and effective to deal with serious sexual allegations, which invariably involve conduct of a deeply personal and sensitive nature and which evokes intensely emotional reactions. Baylis subtly alludes to these issues a number of times in the closing stages of the novel, particularly in the chapters dealing with the jury’s deliberations, and their verdicts.
It’s an engaging and thoughtful novel which deals with a difficult topic extremely well. I have no doubt that many lawyers – particularly those who practice in the field of criminal law – will find it not only enjoyable but also usefully instructive. I am also confident that the many readers who enjoy the twists and turns of a mystery novel with a well-constructed plot and well-developed characters will greatly enjoy Dice.
Dice by Claire Baylis (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.