Man loses appeal against conviction for sexual assault of teenage girl in South East
A 53-year-old man has lost his appeal against conviction for sexually assaulting a teenage girl while on a sleepover, on grounds of jury bias, in a case that prompted the Court President to criticize the ‘disturbing’ practice of researching jurors.
The three judges of the Court of Appeal remarked that they were not at all surprised by the verdict that the jury delivered.
He said the appeal court was "not at all convinced" this was a case where it was ever necessary for elaborate warnings inviting jurors who might have any connections with the enterprise where the complainant’s father worked to draw this to the attention of the court and not serve on the jury.
The man had raised ‘grave concern’, after conviction, over the impartiality of the jury, with the defence writing a letter to the trial judge about its composition. However, the judge proceeded to sentence, and the man then appealed to the Court of Appeal on the same grounds.
Mr Justice George Birmingham remarked at his appeal hearing last month that he had never heard of research being carried out on jurors post-trial and, should it represent an emerging practice, he would deprecate it.
In February 2019 the man, who cannot be identified to protect the anonymity of the complainant, was convicted by a circuit criminal court jury of one count of sexual assault against the girl.
He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years with the final year suspended by Judge Patrick Meghen on May 17, 2019.
The trial court heard that the then 13-year-old girl was on a sleepover at her friend’s house on August 19, 2015 when the man sexually assaulted her in the early hours of the morning while she was sharing a double bed with her friend.
The man’s barrister, Roisin Lacey SC, told the Court of Appeal that following conviction but before the sentence hearing, information was brought to the attention of the defendant’s solicitor in relation to the composition of the jury.
In relation to one juror, Ms Lacey said that while they had given an address in the same town concerned, further enquiries revealed they also worked at a bar on the same street where the complainant’s aunt lives.
Ms Lacey submitted that it was “inconceivable” that, given the close proximity to where the juror was working and the girl’s aunt was living, they were not aware of the allegation in the case.
Ms Lacey said the investigation also discovered that the foreman of the jury worked at a firm that had a prominent relationship with the company where the complainant’s father worked. Counsel said the foreman had been endorsed on the networking site LinkedIn by a member of that company and a video online showed the two firms working together.
She told the court that another member of the jury worked in a sector in which the company employing the complainant’s father had a vested economic interest.
Ms Lacey told the court that, from an objective point of view, there was a ‘very real and gave concern’ of a lack of impartiality on behalf of the jury that could have affected the verdict, which would have impinged on the accused’s fair trial rights.
Counsel said that when matters were brought to the attention of the trial judge, he erred in finding there was no jurisdiction to set aside the verdict and in refusing to set aside the verdict on the grounds of bias.
Michael Delaney SC, for the State, told the court that there was no reason to suspect that the first juror made a connection between the complainant and her aunt.
He said the trial judge gave the required direction for the jurors to communicate any connection they may have with the parties in the case. Counsel said the appellant was now asking the court to assume that the jurors, having made a connection, effectively ignored this direction.
Mr Delaney said a more reasonable assumption for an informed observer to make was that the jurors said nothing because they did not make any such connection.
Mr Justice Birmingham said at the time that there were some aspects of the matter that were curious and ‘one might say disturbing’.
He said that after ‘well upwards of 40 years’ attending court as both an advocate and a judge, he had never heard of people engaging in researching jurors post trial and if it was an emerging practice, he would deprecate it.
In reply, Ms Lacey said the investigation revealed information that gave real cause for concern and that once it was in the possession of the instructing solicitor, it would have been wrong of them not to act upon it.
Justice Birmingham, who sat with Justice Isobel Kennedy and Justice Una Ni Raifeartaigh, delivered their judgement today (Friday).
Mr Justice Birmingham said it seemed a considerable stretch to suggest that the main juror in question - the juror who had worked at the bar - would have been expected to make the connection when called forward to take the Oath, ‘and a greater stretch, still,’ to suggest that they would be unable to give a true verdict.
He said the court was not persuaded that the grounds of appeal relating to the composition of the jury were points of real substance and would dismiss those grounds.
On a second ground raised that ‘no jury, properly charged, could have returned a guilty verdict’, the judges remarked: “We are not at all surprised by the verdict that the jury delivered.”