Judges in their own right, who are nevertheless… simple citizens. This is the principle, provided for by French law, of the “popular jury”, which sits in the court of assizes, that is to say, during trials for crimes. In the first instance, there are 6, accompanied by 3 magistrates, to form this original jury.On appeal, they are 9, and always as many judges.
Any French person registered on the electoral lists can be drawn by lot, at any time, to sit in turn in the courtroom.
What does this extraordinary experience look like? Pierre-Marie Abadie experienced it ten years ago, and he made a book of it, Juror of Assizes: Testimony of a citizen and human experience (ed. L’Harmattan).
He was first summoned to the court of his department, one morning, by a letter stating that if he did not appear, he was liable to a fine… of 3750 euros. As a general rule, justice only grants exemptions when the citizen suffers from serious health problems, explains Pierre-Marie.
But on site, on D-Day, it is not yet guaranteed to participate in the “festivities”.
“There are still four draws that are made before being selected as a juror, he explains to us. The last takes place in session, at the opening of the trial. The president of the court draws numbers , as in the lotto, and each number corresponds to a juror who can then be revoked by the Prosecutor or the plaintiff, without their needing to justify it”.
Result: 35 jurors are selected, as well as 10 substitutes, for the duration of the assize session. The others must go home.
When his name is chosen, Pierre-Marie cannot believe it. “I was stunned, because I really thought I was going to be disqualified, because of my law studies. But my license didn’t really help me much…”
In the midst of his fellow jurors, even more ignorant than him, Pierre-Marie Abadie quickly became a referent. “I explained to them the role of the magistrates, the prosecution and its independence, and other great notions that I had. But the juror is absolutely not trained, which is very complicated. We arrive like a bull in the arena, without any preparation, while we are going to live very hectic hours”, remembers the former juror.
To be able to attend the session, which will last nearly three weeks and see three trials, including two for “rape” and one for “murder”, Pierre-Marie had to adjust his schedule.
“Professionally, we are compensated, up to more than a hundred euros per day of trial. And a boss cannot object to his employee sitting. But it is on the side of family life that it was the most complicated for me…”, he confides to us.
Indeed, every evening, on returning from court, and until the announcement of the verdict of each case, Pierre-Marie Abadie is kept silent.
From the first day of the hearing, he felt left out in the courtroom. “I had the impression of being a stowaway, in apnea, and that I could even do something stupid… We feel illegitimate and impressed in this assembly, where we don’t know anyone but where everyone knows each other, the magistrates, lawyers…”, he breathes.
As the days go by, however, the lawyers who surround the jury manage to put them at ease, and explain to them how the proceedings work, to the rhythm of coffee breaks.
For Pierre-Marie Abadie, the assize court is also “a space of immense suffering and distress”.
The former juror was also marked by the suffering of the civil parties. “They express themselves crudely, without all the codes of society that do not exist in the assize court. It’s very strong.”
Psychologically, going through these three weeks of criminal trials is an ordeal for Pierre-Marie, who admits having had many sleepless nights.
Especially since at the end of each trial, the heavy task of judging falls to the jury alone. He must rule on the guilt of the accused, but also on his sentence.
“We find ourselves in a locked room, guarded by a policeman, and it’s a terrible vacuum from which nothing should come out, fortunately moreover”.
These famous deliberations can last for hours, depending on the case. Be that as it may, “in the Assize Court, all trials are complicated, and none is like another”, adds Pierre-Marie Abadie, who has vivid memories of the deliberation room or his fellow jurors and themselves had to discuss the fate of a stranger.
As such, the former juror ensures that there is always a part of doubt. “Because, in a trial, you hear everything and its opposite, full of incriminating arguments, full of exculpatory arguments, and the doubt persists and persists… But fortunately, something magnificent exists: intimate conviction, a concept of incredible freedom”, he states.
Each assize juror can be drawn again after five years.
This experience, Pierre-Marie Abadie thinks about it very often, even ten years later.
“Thanks to this role as a juror, I acquired more tolerance, more humanity. You realize that when there is a passage to the act, it can be monstrous, and it is, but behind, there is often a complex, a trauma, and you have to try to understand it before judging, which is not easy either…”, adds the former juror. And to continue: “And then, I often say: ‘who am I to have judged when the accused did not have the same life as me?'”
Participating in an assize trial as a member of the popular jury was also an opportunity for him to testify as closely as possible to the functioning of justice. “We are part of the court, we see how the judicial machine works, but it is quite frightening”, explains Pierre-Marie Abadie, who now knows that everyone can find themselves, one day, on one side or the other. of the barrier that separates the accused from the civil parties…