Jurors are critical in ensuring that Lady Justice is truly blind, and defendants receive a fair and timely trial. But in Sierra Leone, jurors are often blamed for missing trials, resulting in numerous court adjournments, and prison overcrowding.
A jury is formed of twelve people, also known as “judges of fact,” who are selected from among regular citizens between 30 and 60 years old. They are sworn-in under oath to analyze the facts in a legal case and issue a just verdict. The jury is guided by a trained judge to ensure all verdicts respect the laws of the country. The Criminal Procedure Acts of 1965 establishes the rules for jury trials.
In September 2020, Chief Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards called the juror crisis unacceptable, and issued bench warrants to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Chief Administrator of the Freetown City Council and the General Manager of Radisson Blu Hotel for their failure to ensure that jurors designated by their organizations are present in court for duty.
“The situation of jurors is getting worse on a daily basis and this issue needs to be addressed urgently,” said Justice John Bosco Alieu during a court case in October 2020, frustrated over the constant delays.
What the jurors say
Mohamed Kanu (true name withheld due to legal concerns) has been serving as a juror for over six years. He said that some jurors don’t report for court trials on time, while others don’t show up at all, for reasons best known to them. However, the blame for delayed trials should not belong squarely to jurors, Kanu said, because lawyers and judges equally contribute to the problem.
Sometimes, Kanu said, the jurors fully complete their deliberations and return a verdict, but the judge is not around to read it in court. On other occasions, it’s prosecutors or defence counsels who fail to appear for trials.
“So, it is not always [the] jurors that cause the delay,” Kanu defended.
He pointed out that many of the jurors selected by the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) do not have the means and capacity to serve. “These people have families to take care of, and they need money to do so,” Kanu explained. This means that jurors who have full time jobs and family, have many personal and professional obligations occupying all of their time. “They have to run their errands in the morning hours before coming to court, causing lateness or adjournment,” Kanu said.
The Judiciary began providing stipends to jurors in January 2021, which was never done before, Kanu said. This could be one step closer to solving some of the problems.
Juror Salmata Sesay (true name withheld due to legal concerns) welcomed the initiative to compensate jurors, but said the money is not enough. “We aren’t happy [because] the judiciary is planning to give us 50,000 Leones per [court] sitting and, sometimes, we spend more than an hour in a sitting.”
However, jurors dispatched from the MDAs are eligible to continue to be paid by their employer their normal salaries while they temporarily serve as jurors.
Jurors play a critical role
Barrister & Solicitor Ady Macauley said the role of jurors is to reassure that justice is done to the accused persons, especially in politically charged or sensitive cases. “If a case with political interest is being tried by a judge alone, it is likely that the case will go in the favor where the state wants it.”
He added that, in legal cases presided by a judge and jury tandem, “we will see that they are not necessarily convicted based on what the state wants.”
That was the case with several high profile trials recently.
In the treason trial of Paolo Conteh, former Defense Minister of the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party, the jury delivered a “not guilty” verdict. Then, former APC mayor of Freetown, Herbert George Williams, and former APC spokesperson at the Ministry of Agriculture, Abu Bakarr Daramy, were tried and acquitted of murder charges by eleven jurors guided by Justice Augustine Musa.
“We will return a guilty verdict if the evidence is there, but if there is no evidence, we will return a not guilty verdict,” said juror Kanu, who loves the job.
In other countries, for example in the United States, jurors are selected from the official voter register and informed by mail that they have been summoned for jury duty. If selected, jurors in the US serve for one trial and then they are released of their duty. Places of employment are mandated to allow the juror time off from work to serve their civic duty.
But it is not the same in Sierra Leone. Barrister Macauley stated that the Judiciary has about 200 jurors, who are used throughout the year. When a juror is used multiple times in one year, it can lead to that juror being compromised, because they are already known to the public. “When you know the jurors, you have enough time to go and try and influence them before the trial starts,” Macauley warned.
Elkass Sannoh, Communication Consultant at the Judiciary, explained that the High Court’s Master and Registrar submits requests to the MDAs every year to designate credible citizens from within their organizations to serve as jurors. However, those organizations don’t allow the jurors sufficient time off to serve in court. “Those people are only exercising their responsibilities to help in the determination of justice. This means [that] from the point you have been called upon to act in such capacity, it has become compulsory for you to participate in the process until the final outcome of the matter.”
The Criminal Procedure Acts of 1965 punishes delinquent jurors with a fine of 50 Leones, a provision that has become obsolete.
Alphonso Gbanie, Executive Secretary for Human Rights Defenders Network (HRDN) said that delayed justice violates the rights of the accused, who could linger in detention without trial as a result of lack of jurors, or jurors’ failure to cooperate with the judge.
“The selection of the panel of jurors will create some problems, even for the judges to do their work. But there are times [when] you need the opinion of jurors to aid the justice system,” Gbanie said.
According to the US State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report, 33% of the 3,808 inmates held in prisons and detention centers were convicted, 41% were in pretrial detention, and 26% were on trial. Some cases were adjourned 20 to 30 times.
“The only way you can solve these problems is to open up the jury selection process, where you don’t have a particular set of people serving at jurors, but [they] can be selected randomly from the voter registry,” Barrister Macauley proposed.
There needs to be critical reforms in the jury system, he explained, and jurors must be well compensated, including stipends for transportation and out of pocket expenses.
For jury duty, “the judiciary should consider people that are of high integrity and impartial, that we believe as a nation will look at critical issues, regardless of public opinion, and look at the facts set before them to arrive at their decision,” added Gbanie, of the HRDN. “All we need is for the government to create the enabling environment for the jurors to do their work effectively.”