In April 1998, Arlene Fraser disappeared off the face of the Earth. In 2003, her husband Nat was convicted of her murder. After a lengthy appeal his conviction was quashed and a retrial was ordered. And it was filmed. Last night, the highlights of these proceedings were broadcast by Channel 4
Legal proceedings have been filmed in the UK before, of course, the Leveson Inquiry
springs to mind, but this is the first ever for a criminal trial of this magnitude. It was held at Edinburgh under Scottish law, which is significantly different from English law. To begin with there are no opening speeches. And the witnesses are sworn in by the judge. The cameras went behind the scenes too, but as the trial lasted five weeks and heard 70 witnesses, there is obviously a great deal missing.
The prosecution case was not that Nat Fraser had killed his wife his own hands, or even that he was present when she was murdered, but that he hired some unidentified individual to do so, and that he disposed of the vehicle in which her body was removed to a farmer named Hector Dick. Dick was the star witness, a man who had admitted lying more times than he could remember. He was also accused under cross-examination of murdering Arlene Fraser himself, and it was said of him that if he walked into a room soaking wet and told you it was raining, you'd go outside and check.
The prosecution case — such as it was — would have led nowhere without him. We didn't see the deliberations of the jury, but one would have expected them to return a not proven verdict (unique to Scotland
) or possibly even one of not guilty. Fraser himself elected not to testify and never spoke a word during the trial. He was convicted by a majority verdict.
After the verdict, the reason he elected not to do so became obvious, he had a history of domestic violence, which would have led to a gruelling cross-examination. Even so, although this case is not comparable with that of Michael Stone
— who also elected not to testify — because Hector Dick is not comparable with Damien Daley (who manufactured Stone's cell confession out of the whole cloth). It should though surprise no one that Fraser has appealed. The trial was held in May of last year, and he has been granted leave for the appeal, which will be held in September
The last word was left to his daughter, who believes in his innocence totally. An unbiased witness might conclude that Nat Fraser probably did hire some unidentified individual to murder his wife and dispose of her body, but still wonder how a jury could have convicted him on the evidence that was presented here.
But the biggest question posed by this documentary is not the guilt or innocence of Nat Fraser, rather it is should we allow cameras into the courtroom as a matter of course? This is something that has a long history elsewhere; the Soviets brought cameras
into the courtroom in the 1930s, but the trial of OJ Simpson
in 1995 caused many who might have considered it a good idea to think twice about this extreme form of open justice. True, this was not an ordinary trial; Simpson was the most famous American ever tried for a double murder, and there was the manufacture race angle, but we also saw the judge playing to the camera, and can anyone forget The Dancing Itos
from Jay Leon's The Tonight Show
It seems unlikely this will happen here, and there are so many court cases every day that if both the legal authorities and the TV companies exercise their discretion, this may not be a bad thing.