Lessons from a public trial
“It is just an extraordinary refutation of the prosecution.”
— Jeffrey Toobin,
CNN Legal Analyst
“There’s no way to explain their verdict, no logical way. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to apply logic to people who were illogical in their jury deliberations.”
— Nancy Grace,
I have no idea if Casey Anthony was responsible for the death of her daughter. Partly, that’s because I have, somewhat intentionally, avoided media coverage of her case. Partly, it’s because after 11 years of being involved in adult criminal and juvenile delinquent cases, I know that unless you’re intimately involved in the investigation, prosecution or defense of those cases, it’s nearly impossible to have a good, solid appreciation for the evidence.
Part of the reason for my apathy toward legal television is simply overload. As I suspect is true of a lot of people who work in the legal field, after a full day of dealing with legal issues, the last thing I want to do is come home and watch fictional cases on the tube. There are a few exceptions, of course (the early seasons of the original Law & Order or the fabulously funny 80’s sitcom Night Court), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full episode of Boston Legal, Judging Amy or L.A. Law.
That’s not to say that those aren’t entertaining or well done television shows. To their credit, they at least make no pretenses about being fiction — they clearly are nothing like the actual practice of law. The same cannot be said for the various daytime mock-courts or for the myriad cable talk shows that provide coverage, ad-nauseum, of criminal cases. Stocked with so-called “experts,” those shows pretend to provide an accurate picture of the legal system but bear little resemblance to what actually occurs on a daily basis in America’s courtrooms.
Much is said about the 24-hour news cycle that cable news brings to us. And, it should be pointed out, as I sit writing this two days after the verdict, CNN, CNN Headline News and Fox News are all still talking non-stop about the Anthony case. That’s not to say that media coverage of major criminal cases is anything new. Even in the days before radio and television there was a “trial of the century” every few years. Still, cable news raises the stakes considerably.
My problem with television court shows is not that they aren’t entertaining, but rather that they provide such an unrealistic view of how our court system works, that they skew the expectations of litigants, twist the perceptions of potential jurors and give the public a warped version of what they should expect from the third branch of government. This is particularly true of the daytime shows that pit two people against one another in an instant-justice, 30 minute smackdown in which the litigants present no evidence and the ‘judges’ are rude and make snap judgments.
It’s just a personal opinion, but I have a special level of animosity toward Headline News’ Nancy Grace. Her angry, unrealistic and vitriolic style, combined with a spectacularly obvious degree of sensationalism and a near-obsessive focus on individual cases makes her more complicit than any other single person in giving Americans a false view of their justice system. To her credit, she is highly successful as an entertainer, but when compared to the intelligent, thoughtful and insightful Jeffrey Toobin on HLN’s sister network CNN, her words ring as hollow, self-righteous and devoid of any true contribution to understanding the case that she’s talking about.
The Anthony trial did demonstrate two things, however. First, the 24 hour news cycle enhances the already high likelihood of someone being convicted in the court of public opinion. Kobe Bryant, Richard Jewell and the members of the Duke Lacrosse team can attest to that. Second, the instruction to jurors not to read media reports and the rare but sometimes necessary act of sequestering jurors can still insulate them from the influence of that media circus.
I have no idea whether the jury in the Anthony case came to the “right” decision, but my experience in the justice system has taught me not to even venture a guess unless I’m there to watch the presentation of evidence just as they did. Sound bites, highlights and talking heads are no way to judge the guilt or innocence of an accused.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court. He will not be getting a Christmas card from Nancy Grace this year.