A fair cop?

Tomorrow, Channel 4's `Trial and Error' will be like `Crimewatch' in reverse - broadcasting live, David Jessel and Fi Glover will be asking you to phone in and help overturn a possibly wrongful murder conviction. Cheap gimmick or brave TV? By Kate Hilpern
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Gary Winter has been convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence, According to the police, the main evidence for his conviction is based on a watch, which he is accused of stripping from his dead victim and later selling to a pawn shop. But television producer Stephen Phelps has evidence that the murder victim was alive long after the watch - a common model - was pawned.

Winter will be one of the many subjects of Channel 4's edition of Crimewatch "in reverse" which aims to help free prisoners who are victims of miscarriages of justice. Unlike previous programmes such as the BBC's documentary series Rough Justice, Trial and Error will be live, directly appealing for witnesses to help test a host of claims of wrongful convictions - chiefly for murder. Phelps expects much of the public to be up in arms at such a non-conformist project - particularly because he believes it has the potential to make the biggest difference to prisoners' chances of release television has ever provided.

So will it really push Channel 4's controversial boundaries to their limits by freeing prisoners? Or is this merely yet another crime show with a different gimmick - and yet another programme depending on America's latest export of audience participation - ready to raise little more than the inevitable hackles of the likes of The Daily Mail?

To be fair, it's not just The Daily Mail that is bound to be appalled. Phelps has found the police force is not exactly elated about a broadcast that will try and overturn umpteen convictions. Adding to their discomfort is the fact that it is ironically modelled on Crimewatch, over the content of which the police have almost exclusive control. Whereas Crimewatch broke new ground in British television's access to police information back in 1984, Trial and Error drew a blank when it came to the source with the greatest potential for research.

Not surprising really, since questioning the effectiveness of the police and their methods largely formed the principle behind the programme. "The proper job of the police is to investigate each case objectively but they actually act as a prosecuting force," says Phelps. "They make up their minds about who's done the crime, then they go out and get the statements. That's where the problem lies for the defendant because the main bulk of material available to the defence team is that which is made available to them by the police."

The live edition of Trial and Error is a one-off special, only to be repeated subject to general success and, of course, ratings. Phelps is hopeful because it is an addition to Channel 4's existing Trial and Error series of documentaries that deal with an individual alleged miscarriage of justice. But just as we are all too familiar with "compassion fatigue" when it comes to endless programmes about victims of crime, is it possible we have now reached the beginnings of "outrage fatigue"? Perhaps we are simply bored of the underdog on our television screens, and so the usual revamping and jazzing up of old strategies are in force. And what better way than using live television with instant response? Just check out the ratings of BBC's Watchdog.

Phelps disagrees. He believes there is a particular sector of the public who can't get enough of the shock of discovering new miscarriages, particularly because their faith in our justice system isn't what it used to be following the likes of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Bridgwater Four. He sees the possibility of regular live programmes as an opportunity to keep these viewers up to date with the fights for innocence of prisoners shown in previous documentaries - and provide research for future documentaries. "Rather than finding witnesses for documentaries by knocking on hundreds of doors and following hundreds of trails - many of them red herrings - the live programme can appeal to millions of people at once," says Phelps, who has been making similar documentaries, including some episodes of Rough Justice, for the past 12 years.

A handy way of making cheaper programmes about the same old issues, then? Well, cost is a part of the "why now?" factor of the programme, admits Phelps, but it will also provide the fairest service possible to the prisoners themselves. "We were finding that people would phone up with additional evidence after the documentaries had been broadcast. The live show will enable us to incorporate that information into the initial research process which will give a fuller picture of how the defendant has been wrongfully convicted."

Two such orthodox investigations to be shown in two Trial and Error documentaries following the live show will cast doubt on the convictions of Danny McNamee, serving 25 years for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, and Johny Kamara, jailed for the botched murder of a Liverpool betting shop manager. Phelps is adamant that Trial and Error concentrates on the "poor man who slipped through the bottom of the system", rather than on prisoners with massive campaigns and publicity. He claims it is a moral issue: "This is the only way these people are ever likely to be given a fair chance to tell their side of the story," he says. "The law costs money, and television has that money - so we can pay for expert evidence and expert reports." That, together with the fact that no other medium can reach so many potential witnesses, is, he claims, what enables television to be the only arena (except, of course, the courtroom) in which to explore individual cases so thoroughly and justly.

Many leading lawyers, including Michael Mansfield QC and Anthony Scrivener QC, back the idea. "It is a genuine avenue to attempt to bring about justice where funds aren't otherwise available," says Anthony Scrivener QC. "In my experience, when television companies get their teeth into projects like this, they create a legitimate way of investigation when nothing else seems to work very well." Indeed, the second episode of Trial and Error's documentaries - focusing on Mark Cleary who was convicted for murder - claims to be largely responsible for his release a year later. And that kind of clinching evidence is quite possible through these programmes, according to Scrivener. "My only criticism would be that the prosecution's case is not usually explained fully enough as a background to the case," he adds.

Phelps has a constant flow of people writing to him maintaining prisoners' innocence - either written from the prison cell or by solicitors and relatives. "The job is to determine which are the time-wasters and which the genuine article," he says. "That's the difficult bit, particularly because, in my opinion, there are a huge number of people convicted correctly but on the wrong basis. That fuels their sense of injustice because they can't believe they've been convicted when the jury don't know how they did it."

The programme's appeal lies not only in the moral issue, says Phelps. "We are dealing with interesting stories. They're mini-thrillers like reading a good Agatha Christie." So it really is the flip side of Crimewatch, then? "In many ways, yes. We'll certainly be after specific details. We'll explain why we think this man is innocent and then we'll say that on a particular day we know a lorry was driving along such-and-such a road at 2am. We'll ask if viewers could have seen that lorry because its driver may have a key piece of evidence. Then they can phone into the studio. There'll be reconstructions to jog people's memories. The difference is that our programme will lack the gratuitous details Crimewatch goes in for. It won't be necessary to tell the viewers not to have nightmares!"

Until now, sensationalism seems to have come with the territory of live programmes involving audience input - one of the major criticisms of Crimewatch. While Trial and Error claims it will be different, the proof will be in the pudding. Unlike Crimewatch, which claimed to have initiated 142 arrests after only 40 programmes, Phelps doesn't expect any results that will immediately determine a defendant's future, largely because it's so much more complex to undo a conviction. He believes the best television can do for these people is produce new evidence and new leads - ultimately the appeal court must be convinced.

For those who back the criminal justice system all the way, the live programme will reveal the most alarming side of the potential of television. For the more cynical, however, it could play the part of a long-awaited public watchdog. For the likes of Gary Winter, it will be nothing less than a light at the end of a very dark tunneln