Personal Injury

Debating Culture and the Courtroom—Past and Present

TV and the Courtroom
By Gayle Mertz

Scenario 1
"The jury of seven blacks and five whites paid close attention as he described not only the night of the shooting but also his glamorous life of Bentley automobiles, mink coats and outings with his 'screen and record diva' girlfriend …

"The 31-year-old mogul spread snapshots of his young sons… in front of him on the defense table as the jury filed into the courtroom to announce its verdict. The panel of seven men and five women deliberated 23 hours over three days before finding him not guilty."

He had been charged with four counts of weapons possession and one count of bribing a witness.

"He draped his arm over his mother, Janice, who was at his side throughout the two-month trial and said, "I just want to go and be with my mother and my kids."

Scenario 2
He "represented a couple…who were haunted by the kidnapping of their son 18 years earlier. They believed that a man named John Pierce, who was serving a prison sentence for molesting children, was the guilty culprit. At the time of the disappearance, Pierce was a suspect, but the police did not have enough evidence to charge him with the kidnapping. [The couple] believed their son was murdered, and just wanted to know the location of the body."

The son showed up at the lawyer's office with the woman who raised him. She claimed that John Pierce had left the boy with her, claiming that the child was his own. The woman agreed to testify against Pierce but was worried that she could be charged as an accessory to the crime, so she first cut an immunity deal with the district attorney's office.

After she testified, the lawyer learned that she had had a few miscarriages and once threatened to "go to a hospital and steal a baby." He now believed that she was the real kidnaper and that she had brilliantly framed Pierce. However, when he told the family, they did not want to tell the D.A. because they felt if they attacked the woman who raised their son it might harm their renewed relationship with him.

The scenarios above are about two different young men and their families. Each story involves intrigue, suspense and drama. And, each story involves a trial. However, one is a true story and one is not.

Televised trials, real or fictional, captivate audiences with "morality plays." They provide entertainment and food for thought regarding contemporary social and ethical issues. If you didn't know whether you were watching "The Practice," "L.A. Law," or "Court TV," you might have difficulty distinguishing a real court case from one thought up by scriptwriters and convincingly acted out by professionals.

People who study how the media influence viewers attempt to analyze whether fictional trials mirror real ones or real-trial coverage is designed to mimic successful made-for-television courtroom dramas. We do know that real and fictional trials influence each other in a number of ways. For example, lawyers watch real and fictional TV trials to get clues on how to successfully present themselves in the courtroom: what to wear, how to gesture, how close to stand to the jury. And those who find themselves in court as a defendant, witness, or juror, model their behavior, intentionally or not, after what they have seen on TV.

An example of this phenomenon was detailed in a 1988 research study conducted by New York University graduate students. They studied a New York experiment that televised the trial of John Steinberg long before actual trials were regularly seen on television. Steinberg was accused of abusing his lover, Hedda Nussbaum, and murdering their illegally adopted child. The student researchers interviewed 40 participants in the trial including the judge, lawyers, expert witnesses, reporters, the defendant, and, through her lawyer, Hedda Nussbaum. The study concluded that "participants had television continually in mind." For example, it was reported that Hedda Nussbaum dressed differently after seeing television coverage of herself on the stand.

While the students determined that everyone was conscious of the courtroom cameras, not everyone agreed on how they influenced the proceedings or the outcome of the trial. Some lawyers thought that jurors would come down with a harsher verdict because they were being watched. The prosecutors, however, suggested that the jury, "conscious that it was sharing the trial with millions of viewers, tried so hard to be fair" that it convicted Steinberg of a lesser charge than the evidence warranted: first-degree manslaughter.

To some, public scrutiny is an important asset. Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person charged with the terrorist attacks on September 11, asked for his trial to be televised despite a ban on cameras in federal courtrooms. In requesting the cameras, his goal was to put "the American criminal justice system …on display for the entire world."

Public Trust
Why does any of this matter? Or does it matter? Researchers believe that televised trials (live, re-enacted, and fictional) shape public attitudes about the justice system, social issues, and ethical values. While different experts agree that understanding this phenomena is important, they often reach different conclusions about the relationship between television trial viewing and the ways it influences viewers.

Richard Fox, a journalist and political science professor, has written that media coverage of the sensational trials of the 1990s has had a "profound impact—and not a healthy one" on public perception of the justice system. Based on the O. J. Simpson case alone, 75 percent of people surveyed had "less confidence" in the justice system after the trial, according to Fox's research. The research, however, seems to indicate that viewers are less critical of the system when a defendant is convicted than when acquitted.

Not everyone agrees with Fox's conclusions. The former chief justice of the Florida's' Supreme Court, who gave the go-ahead to televise trials some years ago, commented: "We adopted a philosophy that if people knew more about government because they could see it, they'd be a lot better off." Because the Florida Supreme Court allows televised trials, people throughout the nation had the opportunity to watch and listen as that court presided over the historic presidential ballot recounting hearings in 2000. The historical U.S. Supreme Court hearings were seen and heard only by the few individuals who found seating in the Court's small chambers. Unlike the Florida Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to allow any filming. Justice David Souter voiced his determined opposition to cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court, saying, "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body."

Information or Misinformation?
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once said that "no average American" would want to watch Supreme Count proceedings for "intellectual edification." Why then do people want to watch televised trials? A review of a television guide might be the easiest way to answer this question. Dozens of brief summaries of upcoming programming, which include footage of real or fictional trials, entice viewers with promises of sex, drugs, violence, and romance. Potential viewers would certainly be disappointed if they searched a television guide for a program that promised to teach about sentencing guidelines or rules or evidence, although information of this nature might be squeezed in between Ally McBeal's love affairs or dating exploits. Columnist Anna Quindlen explains it this way: "The relationship between what goes on in court and the pursuit of justice is like the one between the Miss America pageant and college scholarships; one may lead to the other, but while you're watching, that scarcely seems the point."

While the skeptics make convincing arguments, some people do appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the justice system and believe that television provides them with that opportunity. By now we know that "research" results are often contradictory. For example, a February 2000 poll conducted for the New York Law Journal found that two-thirds of New Yorkers believe that televising criminal trials helps the public understand the criminal justice system. Yet only half the respondents endorsed televised coverage of "real" trials.

Actual and fictional televised trials are popular and will continue to entertain and educate viewers. What the balance is between entertainment and education will continue to be debated.

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