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Russell Baker [imagemap with 6 links]

Russell Baker on The Jury

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.

Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4

Episode 1 - Plot Revealed Below!

You are about to see a trial for murder and you are going to see it as if you were a member of the jury that has to decide the case, having no inside knowledge, knowing nothing more about the facts of the crime than what is known by the jurors who will have to render the verdict.

You are also going to learn a good bit about the private lives of jury members -- much more than a defendant ever knows about the twelve strangers who have his destiny in their hands.

Theoretically a jury is composed of ordinary citizens of the community where the crime occurs -- which in this case is London.

But ordinary citizens invariably turn out -- on close inspection, to be a lot less ordinary than one might suppose.

Put twelve such ordinary citizens together and ask them to decide another person's fate, and you have the elements of high drama.

We'll spend a good deal of time in the private lives of several of the jurors in this case, and get to know them far better than we know the defendant.

The time is the present. The show is titled The Jury, and we will be presenting it in four installments, beginning tonight with a two-hour episode.

The trial of Duvinder Singh is being held in London's Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey.

Fans of John Mortimer's stories know it as the haunt of that fictional courtroom curmudgeon Horace Rumpole, also known as "Rumpole of the Bailey."

Actually, the Old Bailey is not very old as old is measured in England. It was built in the first decade of the twentieth century, suffered heavy bomb damage in the German blitz, and was extensively restored after World War Two.

Nor is "Bailey" the name of a once famous judge or Scotland Yard genius somebody wanted to memorialize.

The building takes the name from the street in which it's located, and the street name harks back to the vocabulary of feudal architecture.

Seven hundred years ago "bailey" was the word for the outermost wall of a castle -- the first line of defense, as it were.

The present courthouse occupies a spot which, when London had walls, was located in the bailey between Lud Gate and New Gate.

For centuries it was the site of Newgate prison, famous in English literature for the distinguished writers and fictional characters who did time there. For instance, in Oliver Twist, it's where Fagin was hanged.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 2 - Plot Revealed Below!

Duvinder Singh, a quiet scholarly Sikh boy, is on trial for the murder of a fifteen-year-old white schoolmate. The crime has aroused the latent racial animosities that lie just beneath the surface of modern British life, and jurors have to pass through jeering mobs as they enter and leave the courthouse. Shadowy figures seem to be trying to intimidate people connected with the trial.

In the previous episode one of the jurors -- a single mother -- was given a threatening message in the form of a rock thrown through her window. The meaning was obvious: violent people knew where she lived and were keeping her under watch. We were invited to suspect the murdered boy's two older brothers. Their courtroom outbursts suggest they are certainly angry enough to turn violent.

But we are expected to behave like jurors ourselves in this case, so let us not pass judgment until all evidence is in.

The story focuses on the jurors. So far we know a great deal more about them than we know about the accused murderer. And what we know suggests that several are under terrible strains in their personal lives.

One's a recovering alcoholic, another's been wiped out in a stock market gamble, a third is torn between love for a woman and his call to the priesthood. One female juror, who's married, seems to see jury duty as a chance for romantic adventure. One male juror, who's married, has a serious father-in-law problem.

Add to all this the tension of having to decide a case with the whole country watching, and the prospects seem promising for crackup and breakdown.

Second episode, The Jury.

Histories of the origin of juries usually start in the Dark Ages with stories about accused and accusers fighting it out in front of feudal authorities -- or about supernatural tests being applied to determine which party is lying or which person deserves justice.

Cynics who spend a lot of time in modern courts are apt to say that if you get in trouble with the law nowadays you may have a better chance of getting justice from supernatural forces than from the typical modern jury of twelve citizens.

There is an ancient lawyer's joke -- which is built on the apparently universal assumption that at least one man in the jury box will always be asleep when the critical evidence is presented.

British juries are apparently chosen with much less fuss than American juries. A British Web site, which advises people what to expect if called to jury duty, states that it is rare for a potential juror to be rejected after arriving in the courtroom.

In American courts, picking the perfect jury is now a high art, and there are very expensive businesses that counsel lawyers about which jury candidates to accept and reject.

Essentially, they're advising lawyers how to put together a winning jury -- rather the way very good managers of professional sports teams put together, say, a winning football team.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 3 - Plot Revealed Below!

Our story is about the trial of a Sikh schoolboy, Duvinder Singh, charged with the murder of a bullying classmate.

The last episode however ended with a brutal assault on one of the jurors hearing the case. His assailant was the jealous husband of another juror, a woman who seems to see jury duty as an opportunity to get out of the house and taste the excitement of fresh romance.

Like all juries this one is a mixed bag of humanity, each member living with private tensions unknown to the court -- tensions that may affect how they weigh the evidence -- and may even determine the verdict they reach.

Among the twelve who will judge Duvinder Singh is a man who gave up the woman he loved to become a priest and is now thinking of giving up the priesthood.

There is an elderly woman who has just learned she has a brain tumor.

There is a husband who has been pushed around for years by an overbearing father-in-law.

We're asked to wonder how these private lives will affect the jurors' performance of their public duty.

Now, Episode three, The Jury.

Because Britain abolished capital punishment in 1965, the jury in our show has the considerable comfort of not having to make a life-or-death decision about Duvinder Singh.

The debate about capital punishment raged for years in Britain -- as it does here today -- but it wasn't until the 1950s that public opinion began to turn against it.

In my newspaper days in London, the British were rather proud of the speed with which their courts sent convicted murderers to the gallows -- and amused by the snail's pace at which the American system operated, with its seemingly endless appeals from the death house.

Then, in 1953, it became obvious that the British had been unduly speedy in hanging a mentally retarded man named Timothy Evans for murdering his wife and daughter. The ghastly mistake was first suspected when police began finding bodies of other murdered women buried in and about the London house where Evans had lived. But these women had been murdered after Evans was hanged.

Evans's neighbor, a man named John Christie, confessed to these murders. Christie had been the key prosecution witness in the trial that sentenced Evans to hang. Thus, in a sense, he also managed to murder Evans. Christie was hanged with the customary dispatch but not for the murders of Evans's wife and child. He never confessed to those two. And the police were not eager to press a case which had severely embarrassed the government. However, the year after Britain ended capital punishment, Timothy Evans was given a royal pardon and his body was re-buried outside the prison where he'd been hanged and interred.

John Christie later appeared in wax at Madame Tussaud's collection of famous human monsters.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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Episode 4 - Plot Revealed Below!

Defense and prosecution have finished their concluding statements in the trial of Duvinder Singh and the case is now in the hands of the jury.

The prosecution contends that Singh, a Sikh schoolboy, has deliberately and in cold blood murdered a fifteen-year-old classmate...

The evidence shows that he stole a ceremonial sword from a Sikh temple, took it to the heath his classmate traveled every day enroute to school, and lay in wait for the boy to appear.

Prosecution and defense both agree that Duvinder hated the classmate -- who with two other boys had bullied him, sometimes violently -- for several years. Testifying in his own defense, Duvinder has conceded that he went to the heath intending to kill, but says all passion went out of him at the last minute, and swears he threw the sword away without striking a blow and ran off.

Then how explain the body violently hacked to death?

The defense has discovered that at the time of the murder there was a violent mental patient on the heath and that he attacked a woman jogger with such ferocity that she required long hospitalization. The police were either unaware of this or, if they knew of it, obviously did not investigate it.

The defense argues that because of incompetence -- or a conspiracy to hang the crime on Duvinder -- the Crown is prosecuting an innocent young man.

In the previous episode the jurors had taken a vote and found themselves divided... As we've seen before, many of these jurors have very troubling private problems that may affect how they do their public duty.

Now, concluding episode, The Jury.

The defects of the jury system are notorious.

In the American South, to take the most obvious example, the jury system for many years guaranteed there could be virtually no chance of justice when a case involved an interracial conflict.

But race isn't the only problem. Jurors everywhere have always been vulnerable to community pressures for a verdict that will not displease the neighbors.

Mark Twain summed up the common criticism in a sentence: The jury system, he said, "puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty and a premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury."

When murderous gangs are on trial, jurors may face the intimidation of threats against their families.

Then there's the problem of getting twelve people of varied background, experience, and personality to agree on anything even slightly controversial.

Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer himself, once said that too often a jury has "at least one member more ready to hang the panel than to hang the traitor."

A prosecutor told me recently of having the closest thing to an open-and-shut case a lawyer ever sees, only to have the jury hung by a vote of eleven-to-one. One juror said that God had spoken to her and told her not to vote guilty.

In most American courts criminal defendants may waive trial by jury and accept decision by a judge.

In my reporting days I covered a murder trial in which the defense lawyer chose to forego jury trial and let the judge decide the case. This decision astonished old-timers among the reporters since the judge in the case was informally known as "Hanging Herman." The judge found murder in the first degree. The client was hanged.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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