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Representing juries.

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Wednesday 16 March 2005

Sandy Toussaint, Associate Professor in anthropology, University of Western Australia


Representing Juries  


Law and Order , Cracker , The Bill , Inspector Rex and Crime Scene Investigation , each represent different aspects of legal, social and forensic issues. Alongside televised and dramatised interpretations such as these, are films and novels based on fiction and non-fiction texts that explore how and why people intentionally or spontaneously carry out crimes, and how they are pursued, arrested, tried and punished or released. With some significant exceptions, including Toni Morrison’s text on the O. J. Simpson trial, John Grisham’s novels, and recent recreations of jury deliberation through programs aired on the ABC and SBS, representations of how juries deliberate and reach conclusions receive little public media attention. There is some irony in this situation. This is primarily because acting as a juror is one of the most consistent means whereby members of the public are introduced to courtrooms, and to the legal culture of the state. It is also the case that the media provides a dominant (sometimes sole) source of information for many individuals and groups. 


While jury trials for those who plead not guilty are far less frequent than trials where a judge sits on her or his own, men and women who are called to jury service as a result of random ballot selection, regularly find themselves in circumstances for which they are poorly prepared. Apart from perfunctory information from courtroom personnel, a brief training video and directions from a presiding judge, no formal education exists on what’s required of jurors when they are placed in the position of judging their peers.  


That media representations via television drama and commercial and documentary film focus so infrequently on juries, results in prospective jurors not having access to scenarios that might arise in a range of complex trials. Whereas viewers and listeners are regularly exposed to dramas involving violence, assault and deception, and trials fraught with legal tensions, a silence on juries limits understanding in the broader community of what the juror’s role demands. 


This absence also ensures that problems which can arise during jury deliberations—for example, the racial prejudice evident among jurors in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird ’, and the doubts that were side-stepped or confused in Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men -—remain invisible and therefore without a focus for public debate and discussion. Possibilities might include talk among friends, family or colleagues where issues of interest from a previous night’s television or film are exchanged, just as they are, for example, after an episode of Wire in the Blood , Blue Heelers or Rose and Maloney .  


Avenues to more frequently enact jury deliberations via visual communicative forms might be circumscribed by an emphasis on dialogue rather than action, and legal requirements that demand the process remain anonymous. But limited public accessibility to various jury issues also restricts access to knowledge about an important civic duty and right. It is the case too that television writers and producers of dramas based on crime, regularly and successfully find ways and means to protect the identities of victims and the perpetrators of crime. Played out as drama without direct reference to actual persons, places, events or names, disclosing how juries work—in particular how decisions are resolved or remain ambiguous—might facilitate viewer comprehension of the process if and when people find themselves members of a jury pool. While I must claim caution about the fine line between reality and fiction, having at least some exposure to both the benefits and advantages of jury process has the potential to enhance the quality of what takes place during trial deliberation, as well as a juror’s wellbeing after a verdict has been reached.  


It has recently been announced that Law and Order has evolved into a new program that will feature juries. To be screened in Australia in 2005, such a series may signal greater public interest in jury trials; it might also simply provide another economic vantage point for a production house to explore. Despite jurisdictional differences between Australia and North America, it will be revealing to assess whether a heightened concentration on juror experience will be reflected in the quality of jury outcomes, not only for the accused and the victims of crime, but also for those who, temporarily at least, sit in precarious judgement of their peers.  


Guests on this program:

Sandy Toussaint  

Associate Professor  

Anthropology and Sociology 

Social and Cultural Studies 

University of Western Australia