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‘Legal issues over Hey Dad! media frenzy’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 2010)

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Those who read Australian newspapers will not be able to ignore the recent case surrounding the allegation of sexual abuse by the retired actor, Robert Hughes, in the long running television comedy series, Hey Dad!.  The media all seems to be giving the impression that Robert Hughes is quite possibly guilty of sexual abuse of several female cast members.  What is interesting is whether the media attention to this case would jeopardise the subsequent court hearing.

ACTOR Robert Hughes could have a potential criminal case against him thrown out of court because of the media frenzy surrounding the Hey Dad! sex scandal, a legal expert has warned.

Greg Barns, a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said it was possible a judge might find Hughes unable to receive a fair trial…

Mr Barns said that the people calling for Hughes to be charged could be hindering the legal process.

”The difficulty I had with what A Current Affair has done is it has effectively carried out a trial without the safety of a trial,” he said. ”It’s aired very serious allegations on an individual … it has created a feeding frenzy around Mr Hughes.”

He said the attention could make it ”harder” for Hughes to get a fair trial if charges were laid.

”Particularly with someone high profile like that, it can taint a jury pool,” he said.

This raises an interesting question.  What should be the responsibility of the media in dealing with legally sensitive cases, especially those involving public figures?

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‘Blinded by science: how DNA evidence can confuse jurors’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 2010)

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

This article highlights one of the challenges that face a jury system made up of ordinary citizens: how to make sure they have enough knowledge and understanding to deal with the facts and evidence.  It also, once again, highlights the importance of research institution in the law reform system.

Blinded by science: how DNA evidence can confuse jurors‘ (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 2010)

THE less jurors know about DNA science, the more likely they are to be swayed by it and find an accused person guilty, research has shown.

Known as the ”white-coat syndrome”, this tendency to be overwhelmed by experts could mean there is a danger jurors place undue weight on scientific evidence.

But a 20-minute presentation to jurors significantly increases their understanding of DNA and its use in criminal trials, and will make them more sceptical and reduce the likelihood they will convict. These are the findings of a study to be released by the Australian Institute of Criminology today.

This should come as no surprise to most of us.  Many of us who lack knowledge and understanding of the nature of scientific evidence tend to see qualified scientists as unquestionable experts in their fields of expertise.  We feel unable to question their interpretations and conclusions, without understanding how they reached their conclusions.  However, scientific evidence like DNA are not error proof, as explained in this article.

People failed to appreciate the potential for laboratory error or contamination and for DNA to be accidentally transferred, she (Jane Goodman-Delahunty) said.

Also, the concept of ”random match probabilities” – the likelihood of a coincidental match between the crime scene sample and a person – was poorly understood, and people forgot to consider that in some places the matches were based on only eight points of comparison, while in the US up to 13 points were matched, increasing the reliability.

Educating potential jurors about the nature of scientific evidence in a legal context is critically important if justice is to be achieved.

What is also interesting again, is the important role played by research institution.  In this case it is the Australian Institute of Criminology.  According to its website, it is a Commonwealth statutory authority founded in 1973 with the purpose of promoting  justice and reducing crime by

undertaking and communicating evidence-based research to inform policy and practice.

Statutory research authority is an important feature of the rule of law in Australia.  It is an independent research body that is funded by governments to provide non-partisan advice to the government and public.  In the case of the Australian Institute of Criminology, it is governed by the Criminology Research Act 1971 (Cwth).  Legal Studies students who are writing about the law reform process should emphasis the importance of statutory research authority in reforming our criminal justice system.