Jury system under threat

ALLOWING lawyers to probe jurors involved in a trial for a Rockhampton murder earlier this year could put the time-honoured jury system at risk, a Supreme Court justice fears.

Justice Roslyn Atkinson has been asked to consider whether she should allow a Queensland sheriff to put questions to jurors involved in convicting three men of the death of Robert James Buckley at the old Etna Creek Prison.

Justice Atkinson said the legislation giving her discretion to make the order was born after the now infamous Joh Bjelke-Petersen jury was "corrupted".

Mark Dempsey Knight, Wesley Robert Williams and Wayne Thomas Robertson were found guilty after a trial in April of murdering the 23-year-old in 1999.

Buckley was found dead, hanging by a towel from a window in a shower block at the prison.

But it was the second trial the men had faced, after the Court of Appeal set aside initial guilty verdicts and ordered a retrial.

Brisbane Supreme Court heard on Friday how a juror had commented to his barber that the men were serving life sentences or long-term jail terms anyway so the jury's verdicts made no difference.

The barber served a lawyer for one of the accused men later that same day and passed on the conversation.

Barrister Peter Davis, acting for the three men through Legal Aid, said the comment meant the juror could have read newspaper articles "already in the public arena" during the trial and had therefore performed illegal "external" investigations while he was on the jury.

He said jurors could be approached under section 70 (7) of the Jury Act if the court suspected a juror was guilty of bias, fraud or an offence related to the person's involvement in the jury's performance.

Justice Atkinson said she was concerned enlivening the subsection could drive "a highway" through the confidentiality of the jury system and "then I don't see how we could continue the jury system".

She said jurisprudence surrounding publication prohibitions on confidential information about jury deliberations was "wide-ranging and significant to the role of juries in a democracy" and therefore her exercise of discretion.

"Juries would be worried in the jury room that what they said to each other could be subject to investigation afterward," she said.

Justice Atkinson said the juror could have been in court during sentencing or read newspaper articles after the sentencing.

She said a juror making inquiries in the public domain during a trial would mean disobeying a judge's directions and therefore a criminal offence had occurred.

Justice Atkinson said she was concerned the jurors would feel obliged to answer the questions and would not realise their answers could incriminate them.

She gave Mr Davis time to revise the questions he proposed to put to jurors and adjourned the application to a date to be fixed.

"I wouldn't be prepared to grant your application the way it is framed," she said.

The Bjelke-Petersen 1991 perjury trial, which was deadlocked with a hung jury, became infamous when it was revealed the jury foreman was a member of the Young Nationals and was identified with the Friends of Joh movement.

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