People just kind of live their lives . . . . They’re not out there just as cannon fodder for boys with newspapers.
--From “Nobody’s Angel,” a novel by Thomas McGuane
Last week I went to the Menendez trial. I was driven more by a sense of obligation than curiosity. This has been a tabloid season in Southern California, filled with report after breathless report about Heidi Fleiss’ clientele, and Michael Jackson’s genitalia, and River Phoenix’s drugs and, of course, the Menendez brothers and the parents they killed.
These are summer stories. They tend to creep into the news when school is out, government is shut down, and the more buttoned-down makers of news are gone on vacation. Typically, they come at a pace of one a season. This summer, though, they came in a rush, a pile, too many to ignore forever. And so, bored by Heidi, disgusted by Michael, I picked the Menendez brothers.
The testimony last Thursday was dull. There were no crying jags by the defendant brothers as they sought to depict themselves as victims of a vile father and a suicidal mother. No discussion of the sexual activities of their psychiatrist, no gory descriptions from forensics experts. Just a tedious examination of a psychiatric expert.
Still, it was interesting to see, up close, Lyle and Erik Menendez, their faces pale, their expressions blank, both dressed in the Joe College sweaters that seem to be their trial uniforms. They looked, not surprisingly, just like they do on TV. In fact, the sensation was not unlike visiting the set of a familiar television show. And of course, for those millions who have followed the case on Court TV, that is what it is. A show. Like Oprah.
“You ought to do more stuff that would interest the legal community,” a newspaper reporter suggested to the Court TV correspondent during a break. They were chatting easily about ratings and cable rates and about what sorts of trials the network should cover next. The problem was “the soap opera trials.” The soap opera trials, they said almost in unison, “are what everybody wants to see.” The Court TV man remembered a show involving medical malpractice and breast implants.
“We opened up seven hot lines one day on that one. Nobody called.”
It’s been a long trial and the jurors have bonded. They joked and laughed at every opportunity. I didn’t catch it all, but after lunch break I swore I heard one of them make a wisecrack about the injury to John Wayne Bobbitt, another summer story.
The main entertainment this day was the constant jousting--"bickering,” was the judge’s term--between prosecutor Pamela Bozanich and defense attorney Leslie Abramson. There are times when lawyers make a big show of detesting one another in court, but in the hallways, away from clients and jurors, they get along merrily, old pals. This is not one of those times.
“Where are the mother’s gynecological records,” Bozanich remarked sarcastically in the hallway. Her point was that the defense lawyers, seeking to portray the brothers as victims, have dirtied up the deceased. “The only thing not in the record,” she said, “is the mother’s gynecological history.”
To which someone added, “yet.”
The Vanity Fair correspondent passed around a National Enquirer, opened to a morgue shot of River Phoenix. Everyone agreed this was a bit too much, a violation. “A terrible thing,” the Vanity Fair man said. “Terrible.” So there are limits.
Late in the day I went down to a courtroom one floor below. It was a child custody case between someone named Jim and someone named Mary. A family friend was on the stand, testifying about Jim’s usage of marijuana and Mary’s complaints about Jim.
“She felt she wasn’t getting what she needed,” the witness said.
There were no other reporters in this courtroom, no Court TV. In whispers the bailiff demanded to know what I was doing there, taking notes. Her tone implied that, while this might be a public trial, it also was private business. For now, I said to myself. For now.
My hunch is that these celebrity scandals and high-profile criminal cases, reported down to the most intimate detail, represent a transition. They are taking us some place. It is a place where everything is fair game, where everyone is cannon fodder, every season summer. In that place there is no privacy. Some people who watch more Oprah than I do suggest we already are there.