Skip to content
Skip to main content

I run mock trials to research the legal system. The bias shown in Channel 4’s The Jury: Murder Trial is a very real problem

Updated Monday, 25 March 2024

For researchers, the Channel 4 show findings come as no surprise. Discover more in Lee Curley's analysis.

Find out more about The Open University's Social Sciences courses and qualifications.

This content is part of our Jury Hub.

Channel 4 has billed its new reality show, Jury: Murder Trial, as a “landmark experiment”. A real-life murder trial is being re-staged in front of two juries of ordinary people to establish whether both groups will reach the same verdict.

Some critics have speculated that the show could cause the public to “lose all faith in the British justice system”. That’s because the programme has highlighted how personal experiences shape, and potentially bias, how jurors view the individual elements of a trial.

I was less surprised than these critics when I tuned into the show. That’s because, when researching jurors and juries, I do a similar thing with participants. I recruit jury-eligible members of the public and show them a mock trial. It’s usually filmed in a courtroom, with actors (and sometimes legal professionals) playing the relevant roles. I then ask the mock jury to reach a verdict.

In these experiments though, I will manipulate certain factors (for example, I may vary the verdicts which are available to jurors) and investigate how these manipulations influence verdicts. Alternatively, I may measure certain beliefs (whether the jurors, for example, have a bias towards the prosecution or the defence) and see if we can predict verdicts using these measures.

Based on my research, and that of other academics interested in juror and jury decision making, it is clear that the UK’s jury system is far from perfect.

Oil Pastels and ink drawing of jurors consisting of six African American women, one white woman and one white man

How jurors use stories

What was clear to me watching the programme was how jurors used stories to make sense of what was heard to them in court. They used personal experiences of previous altercations or instances of domestic violence in their own life, and there were clear instances of gendered biases against the victim throughout.

Interestingly, one of the key models in my field is the story model. This posits that jurors use the evidence in the trial, their own experiences and beliefs, knowledge of similar crimes and their understanding of what makes a complete story to create narratives surrounding the trial.

Then jurors select the best story (they may have created a number of competing stories) based on certainty principles, such as how coherent the story is. Also, the more unique the story is, when compared to competing stories, the more confident the juror will be in their story.

Jurors will then learn about appropriate verdict categories from the judge, although this may also be influenced by their own pre-trial experiences and knowledge. Verdicts that fit or match the chosen story are then the ones that are reached. For example, if a guilty verdict best matches the story, then a guilty verdict will be given.

It is perfectly reasonable for jurors to use stories to make sense of a trial – we are social creatures who use stories to make sense of our everyday lives after all. The problem is, what we do when we discover that sometimes, jurors use problematic beliefs to shape their stories.

Research has shown that many different types of biases influence juror decision making, including but not limited to racial biases and rape myths. Rape myths are false beliefs relating to the act of rape, and the accused and complainer in said trial types.

For example, research has found that rape myths are mentioned in some mock jury deliberations, potentially influencing the joint jury narrative needed to reach a final verdict.

Another study in New Zealand found that in a post-trial interview, real jurors who sat on sexual assault trials commonly mentioned rape myths in their discussions, suggesting that rape myths may inform story construction and verdicts.

Jury bias: what can be done

There are several potential alternatives, such as judge-only trials, or a mixed jury with legal professionals and laypersons. However, these solutions do not get rid of bias, as experts are as likely to be infected by bias as lay people.

As there are several reliable and validated scales which help to measure biased and problematic beliefs, I believe that juror selection would be the best method to rid the courts of unwanted bias.

In my own research, I have found that I could measure how strongly jurors favoured the prosecution and defence using the pre-trial attitude questionnaire, and predict which verdict they were most likely to reach.

Those who favoured the prosecution were more likely to favour a guilty verdict and those who favoured the defence were more likely to reach an acquittal verdict. Other researchers have done similar work using rape-myth scales.

If jurors were selected based on validated measures, it would help to filter negative and problematic beliefs out of the system.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website, and is republished here with permission.



Become an OU student


Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?