TV on Trial

PUBLISHED: July 15, 2013

George Zimmerman’s trial seemed to raise as many questions as it answered, but one thing was proved convincingly: television in courtrooms can have damaging effects.

The jury had barely been seated when observers wondered why defense attorney Don West opened with a tasteless knock-knock joke. Would he have tried such a ploy if he weren’t playing to a national television audience?

Florida was among the first states to permit televised trials, beginning in 1979. Notably, there had been a four-year delay because it proved impossible to get participants in trials to grant permission for the presence of cameras. Only after the state’s Supreme Court removed the need for such waivers did telecasts finally begin.

In its ruling 34 years ago Florida’s high court declared, “We are persuaded that on balance there is more to be gained than lost.” The justices noted that their “prime motivating consideration” was a “commitment to open government.”

However, that finding could also be used to argue against cameras in court. Is it acceptable for anything whatsoever to be “lost” in providing a fair trial? Is “open government,” while undeniably important, really the “prime” factor in the criminal justice process?

Having spent much of my career studying the contrasts in behavior between those who are aware they are on television and those who are not, I am convinced that the presence of cameras is inhibiting. It can also encourage grandstanding, as Johnnie Cochran & Co. demonstrated in O.J. Simpson’s 1995 courtroom debacle.

In the Zimmerman trial, televised testimony by prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel led to a raft of harsh comments about her in social media. Jeantel, who was only 17 at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death, had been reluctant to testify and her media experience is unlikely to inspire witnesses to come forward in the future.

Zimmerman never testified, and as it turned out he didn’t need to. But Robert Shapiro, another cast member from the O.J. trial, told CNN that he would have advised Zimmerman not to take the stand because TV might make him nervous. Imagine that: a man faces decades in prison, and a notable attorney believes his big worry should be television.

Ironically, federal courts, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court, have resisted TV coverage, despite the fact that citizens would probably benefit by watching the proceedings. Trials like Zimmerman's, on the other hand, are of dubious educational value; the real beneficiaries are TV networks.

As Zimmerman's attorneys wrapped up their case, the nation got a glimpse of the next unwelcome chapter in video justice. The defense played a computer animation video in its closing argument, employing Hollywood technology like that used in the film "Iron Man." In the video, Martin punches Zimmerman in the face at the start of their confrontation, even though no witness actually saw such a scene.

While Zimmerman's lawyers argued that digital images are simply modern extensions of in-court diagrams, it's hard to imagine that after watching the video jurors didn't begin to feel they had actually witnessed something in real life.

Television's poor performance at Zimmerman's trial even turned laughable at one point, when a witness for the prosecution, Prof. Scott Pleasants, testified via webcam. In a moment certain to live on YouTube for eternity, television viewers flooded Pleasants' computer with random messages, causing such a disruption that Judge Debra Nelson had to cut the feed.

As technology improves and distribution via the Internet and cable-TV expands, there is an assumption that the negative impact of media gradually fades, while its utility expands. In fact, just the opposite seems true. Modern trials now involve not only the pressure of live TV, but also Hollywood style recreations, as well as instant second-guessing across a broad swath of social media.

Tabloid interests are being served, but not necessarily justice.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.

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