The regrettably late Court TV was a TV experiment way ahead of its time. What seemed a grotesque spectacle in 1994 with the thoroughly televised trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, has become a permanent state of being in the criminal courts. I was one of the idiots sucked in by the theatrics and the polarized emotions that that trial aroused. The cornerstone of the defense, presented by a seemingly coked-up, frizzy-haired defense attorney, was the sordid claim that dad was an abusive pedophile and mom was a self-absorbed drug addict, and that “the boys” believed their parents were about to kill them. So, the Beverly Hills brats did what anyone would do in their situation: they preemptively shot their parents full of holes while the couple ate ice cream and watched TV. This was orgasmic media fodder, the prosecutors seemed shellshocked and failed to address head-on the brothers’ unsupported, ridiculous assertions. They neglected to question the brothers over their lurid and tearful descriptions of abuse, and didn’t present any expert witnesses to counter the defense experts. The abuse testimony became the turning point that blunted the prosecution of those two parricidal assholes, and led to at least one juror totes buying the Menendez brother’s operatic story.
God I hated those fucking asshole brothers in their fucking sweaters.
The first televised trial was actually Ted Bundy’s, back in 1979. That was followed by Rodney King’s videotaped assault in 1992, Robert Blake, The Menendez Bros, O.J., Phil Spector, Scott Peterson, Amanda Knox and Casey Anthony. With the exception of Ted Bundy and Scott Peterson, all of these resulted in highly suspect verdicts. Amanda Knox being the only one whose miscarriage of justice was of her being found guilty.
So what happens when criminal trials degenerate into soap-opera verité, just another form of public entertainment catering to the bored and prurient like me? Which prevails, the rule of law, or the baying of the mob?
Consider two completely separate murder cases: O.J. Simpson and Susan Smith. Both involved crimes of stark horror, whose trials resulted in very different outcomes. The Susan Smith case had all the earmarks of a Nancy Grace, media spectacular. A deeply depressed young mother, heartbroken over the lost affections of the wealthy man with whom she was having an affair, rolled her car down a boat ramp and into the lake with her 2 small sons strapped in their car seats. This story was so dark, so abject, that is there had been a Nancy Grace to commodify it, it would have been literally unbearable. I can hear her in my head, her hideous southern drawl and nasal twang assaulting the english language:
“For nine days, Susan Smith looked this country in the eyes and lied! Sexed-up Murder Mom begged Gawd to return her baybies to safety, and the whole time she knew her baybies were lying dead at the bottom of the lake!!”
But there was no Nancy Grace then. The prosecution and the defenses offered simplistic, opposing views: Mrs Smith was a brutal, selfish killer who sacrificed her children for a guy/She was a disturbed, child-like figure who snapped like a dry twig. These were the crux of the testimony. The prosecution urged the jurors to hold on to their “common sense”. The trial lasted less than 2 weeks – less time than it took Alyce LaViolette to completely destroy her career – and the jury deliberated 2 1/2 hours, before reaching the verdict of guilty on two counts of murder.
Conversely, following a year-long, concerted defense strategy to poison race relations prior to jury selection, the O.J. trial dragged on for seven months. Seven months of tedious testimony and lying witnesses and experts and posturing for the cameras and night by night media dissection. The trial became the standard bearer for throw in enough garbage and it’s bound to stick to the wall long enough for some jurors to find an excuse to eliminate the vast physical evidence. The speed of Susan’ Smith’s conviction was not only related to the fact that she had confessed – Jodi Arias confessed too – it’s the absence of television cameras at the trial and the absence of Nancy Grace.
THANKS, NANCY GRACE!
Most of the world recoiled in horror from the idea of televised trials after the year-long debacle of the O.J. trial. Not so in America, where that trial became the touchstone for all courtroom broadcasts, and created a national appetite for televised trials. This trend was cemented 19 years later by the trial of a psychopath who slaughtered her ex boyfriend when he refused to take her to Cancun. Rather than a sober search for the truth in difficult circumstances free of editorial bias, we have…Nancy Grace….Nancy Grace is our televised trial standard bearer. Let’s face it, there’s no integrity in media anymore and editorial decisions are not guided by the same demand for transparency in their actions that they demand of our courts.
Nancy “Justice for Caylee” Grace made Caylee Anthony her personal cause célèbre the day the toddler was reported missing. She and Jane the-lez-Mitchell convulsed over “Tot Mom’s” sex life which, in Grace’s words, played out “like a classic Greek tragedy.” Like Nancy has ever read a Greek tragedy. “Justice for a murdered child” boosted HLN to its best ratings in history, and every major broadcast network followed suit. CNN and NBC actually built two-story air-conditioned structures across from the courthouse for reporters and crews. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, truTV and HLN all carried the Anthony verdict live. After the not-guilty Casey Anthony verdict, news outlets lost their shit. They could barely conceal their shock — hell they didn’t even try. Twitter blazed with righteous anger led by a downright scary Nancy “The devil is dancing tonight” Grace, whose psychotic and unabashed pro-prosecution coverage not only lifted the central Florida case to national prominence, but probably led the jurors into an acquittal. As an added bonus, Nancy Grace’s public condemnation of the Casey Anthony jurors has most assuredly dissuaded intelligent rational people from ever taking on their civic duty in the future. Thanks, Nancy Grace!
Unlike the Casey Anthony trial, the Jodi Arias case wasn’t rushed to trial with insufficient evidence by a prosecutor who wanted to retire on a big win. The prosecution took the time to investigate, they gathered unassailable evidence physical evidence, obtained a confession, and studied very carefully the ridiculous defense claims they would have to dismantle. But during the trial the clueless judge allowed Jodi Arias to prattle on about every piddling little detail in that annoying, psychopathic voice of hers. The jury had to sit through all of that shit. I would have given her the needle just to not hear any more aspergian recitations of Starbucks purchases. The judge was absolutely awful, lost control of the trial immediately, allowing repetitive testimony, zoning out and allowing the trial drag on for month after unnecessary month. Rich and famous defendants like O.J. can pay for longer trials. But Jodi Arias had a public defender and her trial lasted over four months. Because Nancy Grace made her a star.
High profile trials make it nearly impossible to mitigate the impact of trial publicity on jurors. Even if an impartial jury is impaneled, there is the ongoing onslaught of real time, editorialized trial proceedings by shitheads like Nancy Grace. This must put intolerable pressure on the participants—judges, lawyers, witnesses and jurors. Nancy Grace may think that her nonstop judgmental blabbering will influence everyone in her direction – because she’s so goddamn believable – but surely long trials with overblown media whorage like Nancy Grace must favor the defendant? Think of the televised cases that boasted blatant and undeniable evidence; Rodney King’s assailants: not guilty; O.J. – not guilty; Menendez Bros: deadlocked; Robert Blake: not guilty; Phil Spector: deadlocked; Casey Anthony: not guilty; Amanda Knox: guilty (because the Italian courts have proven to backwards).
What I think happens is that salacious, lengthy, spectacularly media obsessed trials create the impression among jurors “that there is a real issue here.” This usually helps a murder defendant, because in most murder trials and particularly in a case like Jodi Arias, the real issue is not whether the defendant committed the crime, but his or her degree of involvement based on the complexity of the human behavior and the detailed relationship and history between two people. This was exactly the case in the Amanda Knox trial. A fairly open-and -closed case of a break-in, rape and murder by a violent drifter who confessed to the crime, turns into some pervert’s fantasy of a sexual psychodrama between a bewildered college student and a comic book nerd.
Courts can no longer blandly assume that the public understands their mission and the underlying rationale for trial procedures, and that jurors decisions will be inevitably accepted as valid judgments in the court of public opinion. Increasingly, courts will have to devise more persuasive arguments, and more effective strategies to promulgate their arguments, of the continued validity of its core function in the justice system. Courts are ancient, institutionally reactive organizations that have been slow to adapt to the implications of new media on their operations – specifically in the context of jury trials.
Amanda Knox is innocent and people should stop behaving like she isn’t. Jodi Arias is dangerous and should never be released back into society.
First step towards Justice for Caylee: #FireNancyGrace