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The Spectators as Jurors in the Menendez Trial

He was one of the late arrivals, a young man who naively showed up at 11:30 a.m. to find a dozen people lined up outside Department N on the fourth floor of Superior Court in Van Nuys.

Actually, there were a baker’s dozen--just enough for a jury, plus one alternate. They were waiting for 11:45, when a Department N bailiff would hand out the precious slips of paper granting the bearer admission to the afternoon session of the drama that is the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez.

It’s first come, first served. If you want to see the Menendez trial in person, the best advice is to arrive before dawn. Karen Chandler, for example, had arrived at 6:30 a.m., yet the 21-year-old Palos Verdes resident was a bit too late to be among the seven souls admitted to the morning session. Now, at 11:30 a.m., she securely held the second position in line.

It was commonly believed that, as in the morning, only seven people would be admitted in the afternoon. Yet all 13 waited. Among them was Carinne Weaver, a 19-year-old community college student who had been watching the trial day after day on Court TV, the cable station that specializes in live trial coverage. Carinne was in the ninth position and her friend Betty was 10th. I was rooting for them, if only because they had driven all the way from San Diego.

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The young man would have been 14th. “Get in line if you want a ticket,” he was told.

He paused.

“How much are the tickets?” he asked.

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Nobody laughed. In this town, it’s easy to envision the box office potential of the murder mystery that is the Menendez trial. It’s surprising that a county supervisor hasn’t proposed a public-private partnership with theaters to recoup court costs for high-profile trials. So far, society hasn’t gone to such extremes.

Yet the public’s fascination is something to behold. There are many murders in Los Angeles, after all, and the Menendez case obviously lacks the social and historic significance of the Reginald Denny beating trial. Yet it provides the more compelling theater.

Merrill Brown, a vice president of Court TV, the cable station that specializes in trial coverage, tells of an extraordinary volume of phone calls inspired by the Menendez case. In a routine week, Brown said, Court TV receives about 200 calls on its phone-in line from viewers who have questions about testimony or legal points. In recent weeks, with both the Menendez and Denny cases on the air, Court TV has received “between 600 to 700 calls per week.”

Brown said that in terms of viewer interest, the Menendez case rivals the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Rodney G. King beating trial and the case of Gregory K. (“the kid who divorced his parents”).

Journalism has always struggled to balance the important and the interesting. Amid all the reality programming, Brown said that Court TV’s mission is journalistic and that “in the larger world of things, the Denny case is more important.”

The Denny case is an examination of social outrage and public conduct. The Menendez case, it could be argued, is further exploration of the human condition, an examination of the private affairs of a family that seemed so happy and successful.

“How many great novels,” Brown asked, “have come from what’s behind the closed door?”

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To the court watchers, this is an irresistible page-turner. Most people who watch trials as a hobby tend to be retirees who mostly side with the prosecution and like to see criminals get their just desserts. Getting a seat at the Menendez trial, of course, takes special effort and patience.

They are self-selected, and therefore would hardly compare to a genuine jury. It was interesting that so many expressed support for the Menendez brothers, even hopes of an acquittal.

“My own background has some similarities--not as public, not as tragic,” explained a 27-year-old North Hollywood man who had arrived at 4 a.m. and witnessed the morning session.

Karen Chandler was rooting for a compassionate jury, but wondered: “Why do you tell your therapist you’re going to kill your parents, but not that you’re sexually abused?”

But Carinne Weaver, the San Diego community college student who had driven up from San Diego, knows where she stands.

“If I had a magic wand, I would set them free,” said Carinne, who dreams of becoming a defense attorney. “Three and one-half years in jail is enough punishment.”

Carinne, bless her, never did get to see Erik testify Tuesday, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. One young woman said Carinne offered her $20 for her “ticket.” The last time I saw her, Carinne was leaning over a table in the courthouse cafeteria, chatting up the friendly, gray-haired woman who possessed slip No. 1--to no avail.


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