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The Jury: Murder Trial review – surely this is the end of the UK legal system as we know it

The Jury: Murder Trial review – surely this is the end of the UK legal system as we know it | Television | The Guardian

This brilliant reconstruction of a real-life trial lifts the lid on the usually secret deliberation room – and the results are agonisingly close to Big Brother. TV doesn’t get more addictive … or more harrowing

It’s a premise so simple and so brilliant that you wonder how on earth it hasn’t been done before. Rerun a trial – verbatim, from the records, using actors – in front of another jury, film their usually secret deliberations and see if they come up with the same verdict as the real jury did. That is the premise of Channel 4’s The Jury: Murder Trial, with the added twist that they have not one but two juries attending the same trial, unbeknownst to each other.

It is absolutely terrifying. You know how they say you should never see how a sausage is made? Well, my friends, better a thousand sausages than any of the workings of this foundational piece of the criminal justice system – the best method of dispensing fairness we have been able to invent, and upon which the fates of uncountable millions of accused, their accusers and silent victims have depended.

According to the best guesses of criminologists – and they can be little more, given the secrecy surrounding the process, including the prohibition against jurors talking about their decisions in the deliberation room afterwards – juries reach the wrong verdict in up to 25% of cases. Ten minutes in to The Jury, you will be longing for the time when you thought such a low figure was possible.

We meet some of the jurors before the trial begins. A couple seem to be dreading the responsibility to come. Others are raring to go.

On the first day of what will be the reconstruction of eight days in court, the facts of the case are given. They are relatively simple. John (Sam Alexander) admits that he killed his wife of two months, Helen (Katie Sheridan). She was strangled and then hit three times in the head with an industrial-sized hammer. She died two days later in hospital. He admitted it as soon as the police arrived, saying he “just snapped” – on which grounds he is pleading not guilty to murder. If the jury believe the defence of loss of control, he will be convicted of manslaughter, which carries a sentence as short as two years. If not, it’s murder and a life sentence (with the tariff set by the judge).

It is at this point in proceedings that the jury’s first break begins and – just possibly, the annals of judicial history may come to record – the end of the UK legal system as we know it. What unfolds is, if you are a pessimist, everything you feared was true about your fellow man but were quite happy pretending couldn’t possibly be deployed when it was people’s lives and justice for the dead at stake. If you are an optimist – well, there’s a world of pain coming your way and all I can say is I’m sorry and maybe stay away from televised social experiments in the dismal future that now lies before you.

There are those who are swayed every which way – by facts, by the assertions of friends and ex-partners in witness statements, by John’s tears and body language – and there are those who refuse to be moved from their original positions. Which is occasionally a steadfast commitment to impartiality until all the evidence has been heard, and more often – not. People’s personal experiences colour their interpretations of events, making them prioritise different facts and impute different motives to the defendant and the late victim. Larger personalities dominate and some upset others. Conflicts between individuals threaten to subsume the reason they are all there. Jury deliberations, you cannot help but feel, should not remind you so much of scenes from the Big Brother house. There are no Henry Fondas here.

Wider, more philosophical questions abound: is personal experience always prejudicial or does it deepen understanding and empathy? Is the man who has thrown crockery at his wife in a rage the sort of man who should be hearing this case, or not? Could it be that their collective life stories can give rise to wisdom – this bias counteracting that one, this new thought enlightening another? If so – is 12 people on a jury enough? Shouldn’t we get a thousand in, like they did in ancient Athens? In an increasingly fragmented, siloed society, is the jury system still fit for purpose? Was it ever? Or is it, like democracy and capitalism, a terrible one but the best we’ve got? Whatever the answers, it is wholly addictive and possibly even valuable television, if you can afford the despair.