Drama Continues to Live
As we begin another year and edge closer to the year 2,000, one thing remains constant: the drama of the criminal trial. For years I wasn't sure if your average man on the street subscribed to this premise due to the number of empty seats in the gallery during your routine criminal trial. Few spectators care to see first hand what once was considered a form of live entertainment.
But while the crowds depicted in such movies as To Kill a Mockingbird are few and far between (by the way, the prosecutor in that case did perhaps the worst job ever depicted on the big screen), the courtroom is still a major focus of our lives.
Court TV exists. News programs like CNN's Burden of Proof have become mainstays. Courthouse correspondents like Cynthia McFadden are now well known. And from the manufactured entertainment arena, criminal law continues to dominate prime time as Law and Order lives on for another year while newbies like Ally McBeal and The Practice have made the network lineups.
But it is the coverage of real crime that is the cornerstone of the media. Pick up a newspaper or watch TV on any given day and a criminal trial will certainly be one of the top stories. Timothy McVeigh, nanny Louis Woodward, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski, and the accused killer cadet Diane Zamora are just some of the high profile cases.
Moreover, local cases receive local coverage. If I provide a press release to the Wise County Messenger concerning a criminal trial my office prosecuted, it generally will be printed after the appropriate editing and follow up calls. The story is published not because I have friends at the paper but because the editors believe, and correctly so, that what happens in a criminal district court is generally a legitimate newsworthy event.
But why are we so interested in criminal cases? To be honest, a portion of it is probably based a bit on voyeurism. We are able to hear or read, for example, about the intimate factual details of a relationship which led to murder or learn what went on in a gang initiation gone awry. Aspects of society that we never experience in our normal lives get played out in living color. The experience is the equivalent of being given permission to listen in on someone else's telephone call. Most importantly, however, those details that are publically expressed from the witness stand are real. And that's probably why we care.
Like many people cannot drive past a car accident scene without looking at the wreckage, many of us cannot help but watch the reaction of a defendant as he is convicted or sentenced to prison. If a victim has an opportunity to address the defendant, that likewise provides for high drama that somehow prevents us from changing the channel until the moment has come to its conclusion.
The recent nanny case is a prime example. The camera locked on Woodward as she crumbled into her attorney's arms after her conviction was read. We were later exposed to the simultaneous moment in the English pub where the small crowd reacted in horror. As tragic as the case was, the network executives knew it made for good television.
A couple of years ago I watched the O.J. Simpson verdict at Mattie's restaurant on the square in Decatur. Despite the wall to wall lunch time crowd, you could have heard a pin drop as the camera zoomed in on Simpson's face as the court clerk read the words of the verdict form for "Orenthal James Simpson". Even the locals were interested in a murder case in California.
Our lifestyle is constantly changing. Today's teens have never heard of the Grand Old Opry but are familiar with MTV's Unplugged series. A child is just as likely to learn Microsoft Paint as he is to own a set of water colors. Who doesn't have a car telephone or beeper? Nevertheless, criminal trials continue on as if caught in a vacuum of time. A prosecutor, a defense lawyer, a defendant, a jury and a court reporter. The players will probably always be the same.
It is high drama that is constitutionally mandated.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.