Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Perugian Circuses and Courts – A British future for Judges and Juries?

Along with 1000’s of other people around the world earlier tonight, I tuned into a round-the-clock news channel to watch the verdict of the appeal in the Meredith Kercher murder trial. Meredith, a British Language Exchange student was killed in November 2007 during an Erasmus exchange visit to Perugia, Italy. Subsequently, three suspects were arrested; Rudy Guede, a Perugi resident, Amanda Knox, an American student and Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian student.

Back to this evening, even the TV presenters were waiting in anticipation. The movement of video portrayed the tension in the courtroom, the reporters and photographers arched over the railings, waiting for the arrival of Knox and Sollecito as Polizia looked onwards. The crowd outside were gathering long before and started to swell as news of the defendant’s arrival spread.


Already available, but will court TV increase the hype?

The drama continued as they sat down in the courtroom, the popping of flash bulbs and constant chatter masquerades the growing mix of excitement, hope and fear by the defendants, the families and the hounding press, inside and outside the court house. As the Judge rose to read out the verdict, silence became Perugia. Knox’s first charge of slander, GUILTY; cries from the docks, fevered activity in the press ranks and outside, even UK outlets like the Daily Mail misjudged the translation and published ‘Guilty of Murder’ articles before hastily retracting them.


As quick as the first verdict came, next was the fact that Knox and Sollecito were acquitted of their murder charges. Cries of joy and thankfulness came now from the docks, shock and excitement for the press and this time uproar outside with the screams of vergogna (shame) being echoed by all the gathering crowds. American press were roared at and Knox and legal representatives soon came out to speak to the world’s press and angry crowds.


Is this Britain’s future? How will allowing television cameras into UK criminal courts change our justice system? Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced in September that he will end the ban on cameras in the Court of Appeal for reading of the Judge’s verdict with a hope to expand this to Crown Court and possibly beyond.


Any such implementation will be nothing like the real life soap opera seen in Italy tonight, not yet at least. However, how will the slow decay of court privacy change public perception? I would hope it can offer an insight into defendant motives, legal practice and the complexities of sentencing guidelines in more of a BBC Parliament style, rather than Judge Judy.


Will this be the only scene to come, or will the UK see more?

More worryingly is the pressure on those involved in judicial proceedings. Unlike Italian juries who aren’t told to avoid external information and conversations, UK juries will find it increasingly difficult to not take notice of TV commentator’s opinions and those self-appointed judges who will surely plague the media spectrum with their own take on televised cases. Similarly, the pressure of being on film and under public commentary (and scrutiny) will bring untold affects on Judge’s and court staff that will be largely inexperienced in this way of justice.


I only hope that Ken Clarke and the MoJ take notice of tonight’s events. There are many of us who hope for the benefits that extra judicial transparency can offer, such as it’s public educative possibilities. However, it should not be at the demise of an independent jury or the rise of a court circus that receives laughter and frenzy, rather than public interest and evidence of moral justice.

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