Let’s talk about the Trayvon Martin trial. Not the case itself, however.
There’s plenty of meat to discuss there, of course: The second degree murder charge, the tons of conflicting testimony, the verdict, the protests in the aftermath, the Stand Your Ground law cited by at least one juror as a defense for George Zimmerman.
All of those should be gist for debate. But it’s time to debate, too, one other factor not unique to this case but increasingly troubling: the presence of TV in the courtroom.
From O.J. to Casey Anthony to Jodi Arias to George Zimmerman, we can trace an arc of ever-increasing TV scrutiny of show trials. Key word? “Show.”
Because that’s what they become, a reality show gone berserk.
Of course, that wasn’t the intent behind the relatively recent change in allowing TV cameras in the courtroom. The claim was that televising trials would somehow be edifying for the general public, that we could see for ourselves what goes on in a trial, free from a print reporter’s point of view.
In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in Chandler v. Florida that televising a trial was not a violation of the defendant’s due process. Since then, all 50 states have some kind of allowance for televising trials, though no federal courts allow cameras in the courtroom. Some states are much more restrictive than others, though, in how cameras are used.
But edifying? Hardly.
In fact, rather than educating us about the intricacies of the law, TV best tells us something about ourselves: That we are a nation of voyeurs, addicted to these show trials.
We of course have entire networks devoted to these trials, showing the full proceedings daily, interspersed with the so-called experts.
These experts — some of whom are actually lawyers — appear in a Brady Bunch-like screen, all clamoring for attention, most shouting, all present to make a few bucks and, if they’re lucky, to grab their own show.
And in down times during these trials, the same networks fall back on the worst of the media, talk show hosts, most of whom are without a legal background but are loud and sometimes colorful and sure to say something provocative. In fact, they know the more controversial they are, the more likely they get return performances.
Enough of us lap all this up to justify it’s existence on TV. In fact, these cable networks’ rating go sky high.
But do we learn more about how our system works? Not really.
I wonder, too, about the camera’s effect on the court officers, the lawyers and the judges. They’re human, after all, and they know every comment, every reaction, every expression, will be under scrutiny. They, too, become part of the reality show, and if they’re lucky get some nice mileage out of the case, become celebrity lawyers.
With that scrutiny, does the camera effect come into play? That’s the idea that knowing you’re on camera, you will play to type, exaggerate your behavior to be the “aggressive prosecutor,” or the “no-nonsense judge” or the “combative defense attorney.”
Does that pervert justice? I hope not. But the circus that is a show trial shows the perversive effects TV can have on us.
No, it’s time to yank TV out of the courtroom.
Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.