Many legacies of what can now be called the “murder” of George Floyd have already received ample coverage: a national turning point against police brutality, officers finally willing to cross the blue line to speak out against one of their own, and the pivotal role of a 17-year-old bystander – Darnella Frazier, whose video footage memorialized the incident. The fourteen-day trial will be remembered for all that and more.
But there’s one thing that should not go unnoticed. The trial of Derek Chauvin was vindication for cameras in American courtrooms. Not since the OJ Simpson Criminal Trial in 1995 have so many Americans gathered around televisions to watch the administration of justice. More than 23 million tuned in for the verdict alone, across 11 networks, with CNN leading the way. In 1995, many of us were similarly obsessed with Simpson.
But unlike Chauvin, Simpson quickly became a spectacle. Big on personalities, but little in common with how trials are conducted all across the country every day.
Back then, the judge and lawyers became as much the focus as the underlying facts. Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, F Lee Bailey, and Alan Dershowitz comprised the Simpson dream team. We even met our first Kardashian, Robert, the father of Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney – a lawyer and friend of OJ.
Bruno Magli shoes. Isotoner gloves. A limo driver named Allan Park. Fuhrman, Lange, Vannatter. Heck, when prosecutor Marcia Clarke got a new hairstyle, it was big news. The epitome of Simpson? It was hands down America’s most famous houseguest… Kato Kaelin?
It was a total Hollywood production – with characters out of a screenplay. Media careers were made. Among them, Dan Abrams and Diane Diamond. The veteran, Dominick Dunne, ensconced at the Chateau Marmont while covering the case, wrote letters from Los Angeles for his Vanity Fair column. And then, when the trial day ended, many of us tuned in to Larry King Live for the recap. He always had the central players as guests.
But as for the administration of justice… well, it was a shitshow.
In the end, OJ walked even though we all knew he did it. Cameras were often blamed as the culprit.
I never bought into that. The cameras weren’t to blame. The proof is in Minnesota.
The Chauvin trial was the first in state history to be broadcast live and in full. Credit goes to Judge Peter Cahill for allowing this, and the trial was telecast with dignity. Jurors were not shown, nor minors or George Floyd’s family members without consent. Also, credit goes to the big prosecution team, the defense lawyer, Eric Nelson, and the many witnesses. Not a Kato Kaelin among them!
No, the Derek Chauvin trial was all business. It was a better representative and a validation of America’s court system.
Now we need to mimic the example.
Think about it: You have a right to walk into your local county or federal courthouse – including the Supreme Court of the United States – and your presence should be represented by a camera. Transparency matters and cameras are the ultimate disinfectant.
I’m reminded of the fact that Senator Arlen Specter, a friend, mentor, and Pennsylvania’s longest-serving US senator, was a longtime advocate of cameras in the Supreme Court. When Senator Specter was on the judiciary committee – including when he was its chair – he made it a point to question nominees for the Supreme Court about how they felt about allowing cameras in the courtroom. He got them on record saying it was a noble idea and something that ought to be pursued.
But the moment they were then confirmed and got on the Supreme Court of the United States, and wearing the black robe, they had a change of perspective. They didn’t want the public looking over their shoulder.
So as we reflect on the Derek Chauvin trial, let us remember the value of cameras. The camera of Darnella Frazier that captured the murder and the cameras in the courtroom showed us all what justice looks like.