The concept of an impartial jury is central to the operation of our criminal justice system. For hundreds of years we have put our faith in those twelve ordinarily citizens, unbiased and unswayed by extraneous and irrelevant considerations, to stand as the fail-safe system and last line of defence between citizen and state. But of course the key part of that concept is impartiality. For any accused person to have a fair trial, the jury that deliberates on their guilt or innocence must be entirely unbiased and undistracted by any influence beyond the evidence adduced in court.
Centuries ago the Salem Witch Trials graphically demonstrated the gross injustice that can follow when culpability is assessed by reference to idle gossip, scandal and innuendo. Its lessons stand to be revisited and closely-heeded in these modern times, when public witch hunts are so often played out in the social and mainstream media.
One would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know the name Chris Dawson, what he’s been charged with, or what the Teacher’s Pet podcast is all about. But for the information of those who may have been living under a rock in recent times, Teacher’s Pet is a compelling who-dunnit podcast launched by respected Australian journalist Hedley Thomas in around May this year, covering his investigation into the 1982 disappearance of Lynette Dawson, the wife of rugby league player and school teacher Chris Dawson. It’s a highly-entertaining listen, drawing parallels to hit podcasts like Serial and television shows like Making a Murderer and The Jinx. Not surprisingly, Teacher’s Pet went viral. It reached 1 million downloads within about a month of its release, and current reports suggest it has now topped 28 million.
Predictably, its stellar success coincided with a flurry of renewed interest and activity by police into the case and, this week, after nearly four decades, Chris Dawson was arrested and charged with the murder of his missing wife, much to the delight of the many devoted fans of Teacher’s Pet. But podcasts and television shows are entertainment, not evidence, and now it will likely fall to a jury of twelve ordinary citizens to determine the fate of the accused.
The problem for our criminal justice system will be to find twelve jurors who have not listened to the podcast, or spoken to a friend about it, or read a news article about it, or spoken to someone who has, or shared someone’s opinion on the case, informed by hearsay, or gossip, or even a compelling piece of entertainment, but not evidence, or who, at very least, can honestly avow they have not been in any way influenced by such extraneous and irrelevant considerations. Because impartiality is the key, and when it comes to deciding guilt and innocence, it’s not entertainment that counts, but evidence.
We live in the throes of an information revolution. Everywhere we turn, someone is publishing something, and much of it is unproven opinion, idle gossip, scandal and innuendo, pumped out to a willing, often undiscerning, audience of hundreds, thousands, and sometimes 28 million or more. Every day, judges presiding over criminal trials throughout Australia carefully warn jurors to ignore anything they have heard, or may hear, about the case outside the courtroom. But unfortunately, when the seed of bias has been planted it can be very difficult to find the intellectual rigour to dispel its influence. And in the context of a criminal trial, the consequences can be catastrophic.