Justice for All

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After over ten years, Court TV has returned to television. In the summer of 1991, I was part of a group of journalists who took founder Steve Brill’s idea to cover trials live, and we created a form of legal journalism that hadn’t been seen before. We covered criminal trials, civil trials, parole hearings, international war crimes trials, and the most famous Senate confirmation hearing in modern US history. We couldn’t have picked a better time to bring citizens inside American courtrooms so they could see how the system, that was hidden from most of us, really worked.

The first big event when we began broadcasting was the Senate confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas. While the broadcast networks carried the hearings and the riveting testimony of Anita Hill, none of them had anchors with law degrees guiding the viewers. The list of high profile criminal trials over Court TV’s first five years captured the country and brought issues of race, privilege, sexual assault, and the search for truth into our homes. The rape trial of William Kennedy Smith saw the blistering cross examination by defense attorney Roy Black of the alleged victim whose face was blurred to protect her identity. Smith claimed their sexual contact was consensual. Black pressed the alleged victim on her behavior and reaction right after the incident. Smith was found not guilty after about an hour of jury deliberation. A camera in the courtroom let people see for themselves what alleged victims of sexual assault face in court, and they could judge who was telling the truth. It’s an issue that’s rightfully gained much more attention in the 18 years since that case.

The issue of race and police brutality – a sadly centuries-old issue in the US – was covered gavel to gavel in the trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King. The home video of the beating was shown over and over by the defense attorneys stopping and starting the video to justify every baton blow delivered to the prone King. It also showed how four white police officers couldn’t subdue an unarmed black man without beating him repeatedly. The trial had a change of venue which moved it to the mostly-white suburb of Simi Valley. The officers were found not guilty, a verdict that ignited days of rioting in Los Angeles. Two of the police officers were later found guilty of civil rights violations in federal court and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Two other officers were acquitted again. No cameras in that courtroom.

The trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez shone a light on allegations of a sexual abuse in families. The brothers, who lived a life of privilege, claimed they shot their parents to death because of years of sexual abuse by their father. The brothers wept on the stand as they recounted years of abuse. Were they lying? Were they just rich, spoiled kids who wanted to get rid of their controlling father? Or were they victims of the worst kind of abuse? The first trial ended with a hung jury. They were convicted at a second trial, which the judge refused to allow to be filmed.

The most infamous trial of the last half of the 20th century was OJ Simpson’s murder trial. Everyone knows how that ended. Many people couldn’t understand how Simpson was acquitted with such overwhelming evidence. However, the camera showed how both the judge and the prosecution completely mishandled the case, and how smart defense attorneys sowed the seeds of reasonable doubt. Black viewers cheering for the not guilty verdict again showed the different views of race and justice that we are still dealing with today. 

There is no more dramatic moment in a person’s life than standing and listening to a verdict being read that can change their world forever, but what goes on inside our courtrooms affects all of us. The Sixth Amendment grants defendants the right to a public trial. We’ve had the technology for decades to allow everyone who chooses to view what goes on courtrooms anywhere in the country. The history of cameras in courts have shown they have no effect on the behavior of the participants or the outcome. It’s unobtrusive. The small camera in the OJ Simpson trial was mounted on the ceiling above the jury box and controlled remotely.

Many states now allow cameras in courtrooms, but plenty of others still don’t, including Pennsylvania. The court that makes decisions that most affects us still refuses to allow a camera inside. While it recently allowed audio recordings, the United States Supreme Court still refuses cameras. When important issues are argued before the Court, we still employ courtroom artists to draw pictures of the proceedings. The Pledge Allegiance ends with the words “justice for all”. The comeback of Court TV is a step in the right direction to give us all the view we deserve.