LONDON, UK — Last night, Britons turned on their televisions to view something none had ever seen before — the first British murder trial filmed for broadcast.
The footage was shown on Channel 4 in a two-hour documentary about the 2012 case of Nat Fraser, a Scot accused of murdering his wife, Arlene Fraser. She disappeared in 1998 and her body has never been found.
Convicted of her murder in 2003, Fraser was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. However, his conviction was later overturned and ordered to a retrial, which was the documentary’s subject.
In the United States, high-profile murder trials have been nationally televised since the 1970s, and American viewers have since become used to sensationalized televised proceedings like those of O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector and Casey Anthony.
The English, however, have banned cameras from their courtrooms since 1925. Scotland lifted its ban in 1992, and it was there that filmmaker Windfall Films lobbied for three years for permission to place remote-controlled cameras in the court.
“We have a right to see this process which costs us an enormous amount of money,” director Nick Holt said in reports. “There is nothing to hide, nothing shameful going on. The process of filming demystifies the legal process.”
The program was announced in March to consternation from critics who charged that cameras in the courtroom — even unobtrusive, non-live ones — cheapened the justice system and could ultimately degrade the courts’ quality.
“There are people who don't want to end up with an American system where you have celebrity lawyers and so on,” Criminal Justice Minister Damian Green cautioned.
“Taking the first step of having judges read out verdicts and sentences is an extraordinary step forward for the courts. Let’s see how that does.”
Debate continued over whether British justice was making the right step right up to the airdate.
“The court is not there for our entertainment, it’s there to deliver justice,” legal journalist John Hyde wrote in the Law Society Gazette. “Exposing more of the public to the inner workings of a courtroom will undermine, not enhance that ultimate aim.”
Filmed over six weeks at the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh, the resulting film combined highlights of the court proceedings with interviews, archive footage of the case and atmosphere-establishing shots of the judge putting on his robes and wig (this is Britain, after all).
Within the program’s first hour, #themurdertrial was trending on Twitter as newly-minted British trial-watchers engaged in the kind of rampant speculation and armchair lawyering American voyeurs of the criminal justice system have been providing for decades.
“Everybody knows rubbing your nose is a sign of fibbing,” one viewer pointed out.
“Why didn't the police look more into [witness] Hector Dick? I think it's fairly obvious that he's got something to do with the murder,” tweeted another.
Many viewers praised the opportunity to see a courtroom in a way most law-abiding Brits never have.
“#themurdertrial has now made me want to swap career paths and become a lawyer instead of an accountant!” one eager student tweeted.
Although Channel 4 would like to make “The Murder Trial” a regular documentary series, the future of televised trials in Britain remains uncertain.
Lord President Brian Gill, Scotland’s most senior judge, has suspended all courtroom filming while the policy is reviewed. The Court of Appeals in England and Wales will allow filming in October.
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Nat Fraser, 58, chose not to give evidence in the trial. Viewers Tuesday night never heard him speak a word.
When the jury read a guilty verdict, a dejected-looking Fraser slumped briefly in his seat — the first person in a British courtroom to have a gawking public watching his face at the moment his fate was determined. He was sentenced to 17 years.
“Something disturbing about watching a man be led away to start a life sentence,” writer Nikki Osman tweeted as Fraser was led from the courtroom. “Not sure trials on telly are what we need.”