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Law in popular culture
Posted October 10, 2017, 8:00 am CDT
It’s been almost 30 years since the Menendez brothers returned to their Beverly Hills, California, home and found their parents brutally murdered. The brothers’ call to a 911 operator set in motion a criminal investigation that would eventually lead to their arrest and conviction.
My previous column discussed the “true crime” trend and the implications when Hollywood gets it wrong or embellishes the facts. The genre is often used to tell the story of how the crime itself played out. It’s after the crime, though, when the rubber hits the road. Investigation. Review. Charges. Negotiations. Trial.
So, what about when Hollywood–and every person with a television or internet access–watches judicial action unfold in real time? The Menendez case caught and held public attention thanks to cameras in the courtroom providing gavel-to-gavel coverage.
The new, eight-part television series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders gives viewers an opportunity to see the impact the case had on the development of reality television, most likely from the perspective of how the proceedings were covered by the media. Consequently, the debate regarding live broadcasts of courtroom proceedings in the criminal justice process should be rekindled.
HOW THE MENENDEZ TRIAL CHANGED TELEVISION
When CourtTV first aired in 1991, no one knew if viewers would be willing to sit in front of their televisions to watch live court proceedings. As a practicing attorney, I’ll admit much of what happens in courts is routine without the tension and edginess seen in movies and TV dramas.
But the Menendez case offered CourtTV the unfolding story of the deaths of a family literally living The American Dream–the Cuban-born father became a successful businessman who provided his family with a mansion and every financial advantage imaginable until he and his wife were discovered with multiple gunshot wounds to the head, face and torso.
By the time of the trial in 1993, the media circus surrounding the case was focusing on two privileged sons who claimed the killings were the culmination of years of physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by their parents. Add into the mix a high-profile attorney as part of the defense team and the coverage of the trial became “must-see TV.”
CAMERAS IN THE COURTS
As a general rule, cameras are not allowed in federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. However, a 1981 decision from the high court authorized individual states to adopt their own rules allowing cameras to record court proceedings. The use of cameras in state courts now ranges from allowing the recording of all proceedings open to the public to rules limiting their use only to proceedings in appellate courts.
Restricting the use of cameras in federal courts dates back to 1946 with the adoption of Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Rule 53 prohibits photographs and broadcasting court proceedings except as authorized by law or by court rules. Although there have been several pilot programs, there has been little change to Rule 53 other than the adoption of the following limited exceptions to allowing cameras in federal courts:
• For the presentation of evidence.
• To make a record of the proceedings.
• For security reasons.
• At other times as court administrators may allow.
THE PROS AND CONS
Personally, I don’t like cameras in court, especially during jury trials. Court proceedings should have an air of respect and dignity; they should not present a platform for the parties to perform for the local or national media. Jury trials should be results-driven as opposed to ratings-driven.
Proponents suggest, though, that cameras offer viewers an insight into the criminal justice system and a better understanding of how courts work. Other reasons favoring cameras include:
• Encouraging respect for judges and jurors by allowing people to see the work they must do to arrive at decisions.
• The ability to see and hear witnesses and other evidence as it is presented instead of a condensed or summarized version hopefully promotes more trust in the verdict.
• Promoting greater access to the people since, after all, jury trials are open to the public.
Opponents, like myself, believe cameras are distractions. I am concerned that witnesses might be more reluctant to testify truthfully under a spotlight. Moreover, they might play to the cameras. The same could hold true for lawyers, judges, and jurors. Verdicts could potentially be influenced by members of the jury concerned about their safety or about being publicly connected with what might be an unpopular outcome.
VIEWERS CAN DRAW THEIR OWN CONCLUSIONS
Ask any attorney about the last televised trial he or she can recall and it’s probably a murder. The same goes for the general public. Perhaps sensationalism only works when the stakes are at their highest. Perhaps it takes a murder to make a case “worthy” of live television coverage. Perhaps technology and access to information has grown so rapidly over the last 30 years that the public isn’t as interested in watching a trial from start to finish unless someone’s life concluded as well.
I’ve noted that today’s viewers weren’t interested enough in the “judicial system” to care to be the jury in a reality-television setting. However, writing in 1993, Entertainment Weekly’s Jess Cagle explained that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was receiving nearly 50 calls a day from viewers with “advice on how best to prosecute the Menendez boys.”
Maybe the reaction was a result of the newness of it all. Maybe it only matters when it’s live TV life and death.
Watching the new series about the Menendez case gives viewers an opportunity to find out what happened 27 years ago and to judge whether the presence of cameras influenced the outcome.
Seeing as how the subsequent Menendez trials, the ones closed to the media, ended in convictions, I’d argue the cameras had an effect in that case—and they have an effect in others to this day.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. Mr. Banner’s practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
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