The first time I covered a trial as a newspaper reporter, the only drama was how dramatically it changed my ideas about trials.
I grew up watching “Perry Mason” on TV. This led me to believe trials would be exciting, dramatic. Perry always represented the accused – who everyone was just sure was guilty – and got them off.
After lots of sleuthing and cleverness, the case would go to trial. Perry would get the real culprit on the witness stand and interrogate him ruthlessly until he broke down and confessed. He was handcuffed and led away while Perry smirked, and the DA offered one more grudging congratulations.
But that was television.
In life, the main requirement for watching trials is a heavy dose of caffeine.
Oh sure, some have exciting moments. But for long periods, most trials are unfathomably tedious and boring. If a reporter can give you an interesting 10-minute read on a trial, he or she has probably sat through three days of testimony, delays and legal maneuvering.
In the trial I covered, the judge was a well-respected, experienced jurist – calm to the point of comatose.
The attorneys, by contrast, frequently leapt to their feet to deliver a spirited, “Objection, your honor!” (Probably Perry Mason fans.) Then all eyes would turn to the judge as he sat there in his robe, looking like he had just been awakened from a Sunday afternoon nap. You could hear watches ticking as everyone waited, breathless.
Finally, he would draw in a big sigh and mutter, “I’ll sustain that” or an equally unenthusiastic, “I’ll overrule that.”
Drama. The wheels of justice would not be hurried.
I don’t remember how that court proceeding turned out or even what it was about. I’ve covered a lot of trials since then, and the ratio of excitement to legal tedium remains about the same.
But in the wake of the Jodi Arias trial, and now the George Zimmerman trial, I have to ask: When did criminal trials become spectator sport in this country – and does that help or hurt the cause of justice?
High-profile trials are not new. The Scopes Monkey Trial was in 1925, the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper was tried in 1935 and the Rosenberg spy trial was in 1951. All these events captivated the public consciousness and dominated headlines.
In 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial went on so long the entire country was sick of it – but we watched with morbid fascination as the glove didn’t fit and O.J. walked.
The media frenzy over the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has been front-page, lead-off-the-broadcast, top-of-the-website news for months. Every nuance, every sidebar, every possible facet of the hoodie-wearing, young, black man and his neighborhood-watch volunteer killer has been under the media microscope.
Justice should be blind to all that, but it had to be extraordinarily difficult to find six jurors who hadn’t already formed an opinion.
Most Americans formed opinions about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence based on what CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox, or the Internet, told us. Much of that wouldn’t have been admissible as evidence in a courtroom.
The jury heard the evidence. They heard testimony from witnesses including Zimmerman himself and deliberated for more than 16 hours before they came back with a verdict of not guilty.
The media uproar grows, with cries of racism, calls for a federal civil rights case and pleas for calm to the army of rioters who are supposedly out there waiting to storm the streets with cries of “No justice, no peace!”
I don’t know if justice was served or not – but at some point, we have to have enough faith in the system to believe that the jurors, who represent us, acted responsibly on our behalf.
The media is already looking for its next feeding frenzy, and I can tell you what it will be.
U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan has been maneuvering for years to delay his trial on charges he killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009.
It begins soon. The wheels of justice will turn at last.
Some people may not like this verdict, either – but we would do well to trust the system.
Ultimately, juries usually get it right.
Also, I’m pretty sure Perry Mason isn’t defending him.
Bob Buckel is executive editor of the Wise County Messenger.