The psychology of a murder trial

While true crime documentaries have taken the world by storm, with shows such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer and true crime podcast Serial enrapturing audiences as they detail the ins and outs of real life courtroom drama, the chances of sitting on a jury in England and Wales is just 35 per cent.

Keen to capitalise on the growing interest in the justice system, the Forensic Psychology Unit of London-based Goldsmiths University saw an opportunity to not only create valuable academic research into how trials work, but also to invite members of the public to see how it’s done and demonstrate the unit’s expertise to an outside audience.

Following on from its CorpComms Award-winning event, The Death of Jane Doe, in which a group of young people aged 18 to 25 played journalists and investigators of a murder, the department, led by professor Gordon Wright launched The Psychology of a Murder Trial.

Attendees acted as jurors in a trial loosely based on that of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged after being convicted of the murder of her lover David Blakely. They were presented with vital evidence to peruse and decide whether the fake defendant was guilty.

 ‘We stuck to the core elements [of the first event], keeping it authentic by employing the immersive theatre idea,’ says Wright. ‘Everyone is part of the story. We have controlled information, to manipulate people into giving the murder verdict. We try to preempt people’s decision making.’

Wright says Ellis put up a horrible defence, and her case led to changes in key parts of the British legal system, not least the abolition of the death penalty. Two years later, the diminished responsibility defence was introduced into English law; it can commute a murder sentence to manslaughter on the grounds of either provocation or an unbalanced mental state.

Wright notes that one of the evening’s most interesting findings was that students who attended the event, who had had no previous exposure to the workings of the law, saw this defence as implicit.

In order to further gauge the effects of the trial process on the way jurors make decisions, attendees were split into two groups for simultaneous trials. Evidence was given to the two sets of jurors in different ways to illustrate how presentation can have an impact on the outcome of a trial.

‘Is there any better time to talk to someone about psychology than whilst people are going through the process itself?’ asks Wright. ‘It’s interactive and visceral. We had people apologise to us for giving a guilty verdict.’ 

He continues: ‘It’s real valuable science. It’s illegal to talk to real jurors about the decision they make, so it’s always an artificial recreation - why not make it a full blown trial? By doing research that’s more realistic, you get more people responding naturally and hopefully end up with a publishable data-set.’

The event showcased Goldsmiths to current and prospective students, as well as strengthening links to the community by targeting groups, such as local societies interested in the history of London.

The live event also demonstrated the skills of actors, stage designers and musicians from across the campus. A cast and crew of around 70 made up of students volunteers ran the event with two members of staff from the forensic psychology department, meaning that the event displayed many more reasons to go to Goldsmiths beyond forensic science.

‘It was the same core society who helped us with the last event,’ says Wright. ‘It’s a central piece of their society’s calendar. It shows a great vote of confidence. They see a real value in educational immersive theatre.’

Wright says the success of the three evening-run was ‘phenomenal’, and that feedback has been lovely, with interest having grown since their first event last year.  So for two live events based on murder and intrigue, one university was certainly reaping the rewards in all departments, including communications.

Case closed, your Honour.