Just when I thought TV had settled permanently into the late summer doldrums, along comes In the Jury Room, ABC's stunning new seven-part series. Each of seven shows follows a real-life capital case from the pretrial preparation stage through the trial, jury deliberations, and final verdict. In the Jury Room (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET), is not a reality show, but an unadorned, cinema-vérité-style documentary whose camera crew remains as unobtrusive as possible and allows the audience to come to a final conclusion for themselves. Though the crimes in question are violent—all but one of the five involve murder or manslaughter—they are treated without sensationalism; the show is about the juridical process itself. In fact, In the Jury Room is so engrossing, mature, and intelligent, I had to keep checking the channel to make sure I was really watching network TV.
As fascinating as it can be to watch the legal process in action, In the Jury Room is the kind of show that might teach viewers once and for all that the courtroom is someplace you really, really don't want to be. (I've written before about America's insatiable appetite for procedural shows about the legal system.) More than any legal show I've seen, this one gets at the physical unpleasantness of the whole trial experience: the fluorescent-lit rooms, the hastily consumed bad food and warm soft drinks, the unremitting ugliness of both the surroundings and what happens in them. Not a single person on-screen is attractive; the closest we come is one juror who looks a little like a puffy Martha Plimpton with bad skin. The defendants seem like miserable, reprehensible lowlifes, but we can't help but notice that the scoundrels dragged in to testify against them (often in exchange for immunity deals) are hardly pillars of society themselves. Unlike Law & Order-type dramasor legal "reality" shows like Judge Judy or The People's Court, In the Jury Room takes you to a place where the moral high ground is nowhere in sight, and you just have to make do with the lesser of two scumbags.
This week's subject is 47-year-old Mark Ducic, an unemployed deadbeat with a petty crime record. Ducic has been accused of killing his common-law wife and their landlord with a cocktail of deadly drugs via injection. The problem is, both victims were drug addicts already, and their deaths were first recorded by the coroner as suicides. It's only after a police informant, a former jail buddy of Ducic's, captures him on tape bragging about having caused the two deaths that the state charges him with murder. But as Ducic's lawyer points out, his client is a pathological liar; he also boasts about having been a Hell's Angel, a Mafia hit man, and a member of the elite 82nd Airborne military division. "You are a myth within a myth," his lawyer tells him wearily, but in fact, Ducic's Pinocchio tendencies are the basis of his defense, his only response to mass murder charges that carry a possible death-penalty sentence. (See, the show is educational: Who knew that two people counted as "mass murder"?)
Even after two hours of grueling footage of testimony and deliberation, I honestly don't know whether I think Ducic is guilty or not, and I'm relieved not to be one of the jurors who agonize (often tearfully) over the life that has been put into their hands. In many of these jury-room scenes, as at the trial itself, In the Jury Room is almost unbearably intimate—it gives you that creepy feeling, not uncommon in successful documentaries, that you really shouldn't be overhearing this. One example: In court, Ducic hesitates at the last minute about putting his aged mother on the stand. "She'll break down," he whispers to his defense attorney. "That's good, that's what we want," comes the chilling reply, and Ducic assents. The filmmakers were clearly at pains to make their presence as unobtrusive as possible—the show was shot with two separate camera crews, one for the defense and one for the prosecution, to avoid any crossing over of confidential information between sides. The result is a document that, however bleak its subject matter, never intrudes on the dignity of its subjects or the gravity of the proceedings at hand.
Next week's episode of In the Jury Room promises to be even more of a downer; in it, a wheelchair-bound woman in an abusive relationship stands accused of beating her 2-year-old daughter to death. As fodder for drama or run-of-the-mill prime-time journalism, this would be the kind of television that degrades both the watcher and the watched; in the hands of In the Jury Room, it's likely to do justice to both.