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The Trial: Did we really want to know who dun it?

The Trial: Did we really want to know who dun it?


Ben Henriques discusses the dénouement of the Channel 4 programme exploring the jury system

Do we do it as reality TV or drama? The makers of Channel 4’s interesting explanation of the jury system opted decisively for the latter in the last episode of The Trial. Although it made for gripping television, this approach somewhat undermined the power of the programme’s investigation of the jury system.

After a lengthy build-up, and after the jury had failed to agree a verdict, the audience were finally shown the murder of Carla Davis… by the defendant. The message was as clear as any tabloid headline – ‘Heartless husband gets away with murder!’

Previous episodes of the series had been entirely restricted to documentary-style ‘talking heads’, footage of court proceedings, and clips of CCTV or similar footage. This approach was seemingly dropped in the final episode, a large proportion of which was devoted to a dramatised exposition of ‘what actually happened’.

Showing viewers what actually happened transformed The Trial from an interesting reality TV experiment into yet another fictional account of murder. There is nothing wrong with compelling who-dun-its, but showing the audience ‘the truth’ fundamentally overshadowed the investigation of how the jury operated. In a real murder trial the jury never know ‘what actually happened’. They, as well as the defendant and the deceased’s family, have to accept the verdict without any definitive version of events. Indeed, the whole point of most criminal trials is to try to gain as high a degree of certainty as possible about what happened in a particular situation, where facts are often hotly disputed.

Finding out that Mr Davis did kill his wife inevitably gave the impression that the jury had somehow made a mistake or failed to ‘do justice’ (as some of the jurors themselves believed). Such a view is wholly incorrect. It is perfectly legitimate for jurors not to be able to reach a verdict. All this means is that the jurors take differing views of the evidence. It is to be hoped that this programme will not make real juries feel that they must reach a decision, come what may.

On the particular facts of this case, a ‘hung’ jury was relatively likely and it was clear that the trial was intended to be balanced on a knife edge. Such a case makes for good drama, but hardly reflects the reality of most jury trials, which end in definite verdicts of guilty or not guilty.

Another consequence of implying that the jury ‘got it wrong’ was that it encouraged the audience to think of the jury system in terms of failure or success. In fact, and inevitably, any court system will produce some unsatisfactory results – people will be wrongly convicted or acquitted. The purpose of the jury system is to ensure that the process by which decisions are reached is as fair as possible. Twelve ordinary people, the theory goes, are more likely to have different and representative viewpoints than any panel of judges. As with having prosecution and defence, the theory is that competition between these views is the most efficient way of getting at the truth. The jury in The Trial actually demonstrated how well this system worked: different views were debated and jurors changed their views according to what they heard in court. It was quite clear that a different jury might have come to a different conclusion.

It would have been quite possible to simply have a verdict without showing the jury ‘what really happened’. Leaving the audience without definitive answers might have been mildly dissatisfying, but would have been a far better reflection of what happens at the end of a criminal trial.

Another consequence of a hung jury, barely explored in The Trial, is the fact that Mr Davis would almost certainly have been re-tried and it is quite possible that the second jury would have reached a definite verdict.

Overall, Channel 4 has produced a fascinating piece of drama which provides some very interesting insights into the legal world and the jury system. Even the final episode’s side-track into fiction does not wholly overwhelm its achievements.


Ben Henriques is an associate at Corker Binning