One of the things I’ve never got to do in real life (at least so far) is sit on a jury. I know that many find doing so a nuisance and are only too glad to avoid it. I think the main objection people have is that it typically takes several days out of one’s schedule – though in the case of the US murder trial that took 3.5 years that’s probably fair comment. Whether it is the inherent theatricality of proceedings that I’d find intriguing I’m not sure, but it would be interesting to find out. Meanwhile The Evidence Chamber as presented by a group called Fast Familiar provided me with a taster of the real thing. This online experience is part of a growing trend towards audience active shows in which participants become central to the action rather than just sitting and watching. I’d already had some experience of this (click here) so was keen to compare notes.
Fast Familiar are basically the trio Rachel Briscoe (writer), Dan Barnard (director) and Joe McAlister (computational artist). In this instance they have collaborated with forensic scientists at the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science because as well as being a show for fun it provides some serious research findings into the way juries behave. Thus there is a maximum of twelve participants and they are greeted by Stan, the Clerk Of The Court who shows them how the technology works; I’m not sure what platform they use but it’s pretty similar to Zoom and, of course, nowadays, we’re all experts in that (ahem!) “The computer” randomly selects a foreman and the trial begins. First up is a newsreel outlining the crime – the murder of an eighty-five-year old human rights campaigner. Various documents (e.g. the tracing of the whereabouts of a mobile phone) and expert witness testimonies are given. Various characters from the drama make their statements and it becomes clear that the accused has a less than blemish free past. There is none of the standard cross examination of anything – clearly what would take several days to unpack has to be got through a lot more swiftly. Periodically, the action halts while the jury convene to debate and discuss and reach interim conclusions; I assume this is all part of the evidence gathering for the research project so that the participant’s shifting feelings can be gauged; this is articulating what would usually be an internalised process for each individual. A necessary but, of course, unrealistic time limit is imposed on these discussions but the scenario does replicate the idea that jury members would know nothing about each other before meeting at a trial and would, therefore, have to socially negotiate their way through the process.
I’m not going to say which way I voted but I will say I changed my mind more than once as new evidence came to light. The testimony of expert witnesses was quite key to this even if, at the back of my mind, I knew this was not a real scenario and that the experts were being played by actors. I learned a few things I didn’t know about DNA profiling and considerably more about Forensic Gait Analysis “the process of judging whether sample video footage taken of an unknown individual at or near the scene of a crime matches reference footage taken of a known individual at a different location”. Apparently, it is an inexact and controversial science and I can now see why. I also learned that taking notes in a trial situation is pretty much a necessity – too many names, places, dates and numbers to retain otherwise. The trial scenario is followed by a 20 minute debrief where among other things we were asked to reflect on whether, in the light of Covid 19, we approved of trials in which the jury were remote, as we had been. I feel about this as I feel about actual theatrical performances – during these difficult times it is an acceptable alternative but it’s no permanent substitute for the real thing.
As a piece of research, Fast Familiar’s The Evidence Chamber undoubtedly provides a novel and ingenious way of studying jury behaviour and decision making; as a piece of drama I’m not so sure of its standing. It perhaps takes audience participation a bit too far as the jurors are largely left to proceed through the various stages without interference or guidance (which, to be fair, is partly the point) so that their decision making and thought processes can be analysed without bias. However, there’s no denying that it is fun playing the amateur sleuth and at least there isn’t the burden of knowing that if you make the “wrong” decision you are potentially ruining someone else’s life. And it won’t take up several days (or 3.5 years) of your life either!
(For obvious reasons there are no photos of this show)
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