Criminal Law

By Jane Carey


Discharge of jury reinforces need for judge-alone trials

On Tuesday afternoon the Chief Justice of the ACT Supreme Court discharged a jury in the case of Gabrielle Woutersz, the young girl charged with the murder of her mother in October 2014.

The trial itself had gone for about four weeks and the jury had been deliberating for almost three weeks after that.

The Canberra Times reported that some of the jurors wept as the Chief Justice thanked them for their service to the community.  Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.  These 12 people have had their lives consumed by this tragic story for the last seven weeks or so.

Any murder trial is difficult for a jury to deal with, however there were aspects of this matter that made it particularly complex, particularly for a jury of 12 laypeople with no legal training.

It was not disputed the accused had killed her mother – the issue in dispute was whether she was suffering from a mental impairment at the time of the killing and, in particular, whether that mental impairment meant she did not know the nature and quality of her conduct; she did not know the conduct was wrong; or she could not control her conduct.

As convoluted as the defence of mental impairment is, in this case it was further complicated by the impact the accused’s drug use may have had on the development of her mental health problem.

It is no surprise that the jury could not reach a verdict in this matter or that they were particularly upset with the outcome of the trial.  The legal issues involved in this case are too difficult to expect an entire jury of laypeople to comprehend the confusing expert evidence and the dense law on this issue; and then to apply the law correctly.

Up until 2011 in the ACT an accused was able to elect to have complex matters like this tried solely by a judge, without a jury.  In 2011 the ACT government amended the law so that serious criminal charges (sexual assaults and murders) must be tried by a jury.  In NSW and in other jurisdictions the option for a judge-alone trial remains if the parties agree or the Court considers it is in the interests of justice to do so.  This trial is the sort of matter that is routinely tried by judge-alone in those other jurisdictions, and rightly so.

The cost to the public purse for this trial must have been significant and will be repeated at the retrial later in 2017.  This case demonstrates that there is a real need for judge-alone trials in the ACT, especially in serious criminal matters when there are complex legal issues that need specialised consideration.  Perhaps the result in this case will prompt the ACT Government to reconsider their position.