RC: Jury behaviour study raises possibilities of major reform

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The Australian research challenges the long-held assumption that juries hold unfair prejudice towards defendants in sexual abuse cases that may influence their decision-making. Released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Wednesday, the study found juries were not unfairly swayed by hearing evidence from multiple complainants against the same defendant.

It also revealed that evidence of the accused’s “bad character” did not unduly influence a jury’s verdict.

Conducted by Charles Sturt University and the University of NSW, the study involved more than 1000 people who took part in 90 mock trials involving child sexual abuse.

The research revealed that when presented with a joint trial involving multiple victims and one defendant, juries were not overwhelmed by the number of witnesses or complainants, were able to distinguish charges against an accused and could base their verdicts on evidence related to each count.

Royal commission chairman Peter McClellan said the question of holding joint trials – as opposed to separate hearings, where juries are not made aware of similar allegations against the same defendant – is one of the issues that has “troubled our courts for many years”.

“The research that we are releasing today provides evidence about how people who are likely to comprise juries reason on these issues,” he said at the launch of the report at NSW Parliament House.

“I anticipate that it will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the accuracy of judges’ assumptions.”

He said the commissioners had not formed a conclusion on if or how rules governing the legal process should change but will make recommendations in a report into criminal justice issues to be published next year.

The royal commission has previously heard evidence about convicted paedophile John Dennis Maguire, who was accused of repeatedly molesting boys while working as a dorm master at St Joseph’s College in Hunters Hill from 1978 to 1986.

The Marist brother faced eight separate trials on child sex abuse charges and was acquitted on each occasion, with none of the jurors being told of the other allegations against him.

“I found the separate-trial process disappointing, because it protected the offender over the complainants,” victim CDR told the commission. “Maguire’s word against one victim is very different to Maguire’s word against eight victims.”

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