The O.J. Simpson story has dominated the nation’s news media and the national consciousness in a way unmatched since Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnaped 63 years ago.
H.L. Mencken, the journalist and social critic, called the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnaping and murder of 20-month-old Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
The kidnaping took place in March, 1932, and by the time Hauptmann went on trial in January, 1935, “the newspapers and all the other media--radio, newsreels and even nascent TV--had taken part in the unfolding story and developed every excruciating detail,” said Paula Hass, a history professor at UC Berkeley.
The press corps for the Hauptmann trial was 700 strong, including some of the most famous bylines of the day: Walter Winchell, Heywood Broun, Arthur Brisbane, Fannie Hurst and Adela Rogers St. Johns. Authors Edna Ferber, Damon Runyan, Kathleen Norris and Alexander Woollcott were also in attendance.
Reporters and columnists routinely wrote about “famous faces seen in court” (Ginger Rogers, Jack Dempsey, Jack Benny and Lynn Fontaine) much as the media would note the arrivals of various luminaries during the Simpson trial.
Flemington, N.J. (pop. 2,700), had no telegraph wires before it became the site of the Hauptmann trial; suddenly, 45 wires connected Flemington with London, Paris, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Melbourne and other world capitals. The result of all this media attention was “a perfect riot of lurid publicity,” in the words of Oscar Hallam, former associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and chairman of a committee on publicity in criminal trials appointed by the American Bar Assn. after the Hauptmann trial.
Public and journalistic opinion were in hysterical agreement that Hauptmann was guilty, and coverage of his trial was often far more biased than anything that critics cited in the mainstream media during the Simpson trial. Newspaper headlines spoke of “an iron-clad case against Bruno,” and stories said, “Hauptmann’s case crumbles” and “Hauptmann seems . . . on the [witness] stand a thing lacking in human characteristics.”
Judge Thomas Trenchard allowed far more spectators in the courtroom than its seating capacity could handle; some stood and others sat on windowsills, tables or radiators. The crowd was often loud and unruly--talking, applauding, giggling and laughing. Although the judge prohibited taking pictures while court was in session, photographers routinely ignored his order, even going so far as to take pictures of a sitting juror.
Criticism of the media, the judge and the lawyers was so widespread after the trial that the American Bar Assn. appointed a series of committees to examine what had happened. The most important of those committees concluded that the media circus at the trial had constituted “the most spectacular and depressing example of improper publicity and professional misconduct ever presented to the people of the United States in a criminal trial.”
Based on this committee’s report and recommendations, the American Bar Assn. in 1937 amended its Canons of Professional and Judicial Ethics to include a new “Canon 35,” banning all photographic and audio courtroom recordings, on the grounds that they were “inherently” disruptive and jeopardized a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The ban remained in effect for almost two decades.
Four decades after that came the case of the People of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson.
TV cameras are now permissible in California courtrooms, as they are in 46 other states, if the judge approves. Judge Ito approved--reluctantly. The cameras were then widely blamed for the length of the Simpson trial and for the spectacle that it became--and for helping to push the taxpayers’ tab for the case to $8.3 million.
Had it not been for the cameras, many critics said, attorneys on both sides would not have talked so long, and defense attorneys in particular wouldn’t have used the trial as a forum to try their case simultaneously in the court of public opinion.
According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken last week, 53% of the people in Los Angeles County thought that allowing the cameras in was a mistake, and some judges are already reacting to this public sentiment.
Last Friday, when Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg banned cameras from the second trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, Sylvia Teague, president of the Radio Television News Assn. of Southern California, called his decision “a reaction to all the criticism of cameras in the courtroom during the Simpson trial.”
Three months ago, the judge in the trial of Susan Smith, accused of murdering her two young children, decided not to allow cameras in his courtroom. So did the judge in the trial of Richard Allen Davis, accused of murdering Polly Klaas. “Nothing like the O.J. Simpson case is going to happen in my courtroom,” said Lawrence Antolini, the judge in the Davis case.
Thousand of miles away in Palermo, Italy, prosecutors invoked the excesses of the Simpson case last month when they asked a judge to prohibit live television coverage of the trial of Giulio Andreotti, the former Italian premier, who is accused of murder, of having links to the Mafia and of using his office to fix criminal cases.
Many American journalists and lawyers who previously supported the concept of cameras in the court changed their minds or at least became ambivalent after the Simpson case.
“I think television coverage of ordinary trials is a wonderful thing,” said Peter Arenella, the UCLA law professor. “People should have the right to see that. Trials should be televised. The question is whether aberrational, high-profile trials should be televised. It doesn’t educate so much as it gives a distorted picture of the criminal justice system.”
The Simpson trial was sui generis. About 80% of the criminal defendants in the United States are indigent. In California, 93% of all criminal cases end with a plea bargain; they don’t even go to trial. With a celebrity defendant and all those high-priced, high-profile lawyers and scientific experts and a jury that broke the state record for length of sequestration, the Simpson trial is unprecedented.
Arenella and others worry that having seen the trial, many Americans (and many American politicians) will demand reforms that will be more damaging than anything the cameras showed--doing away with the requirement for a unanimous jury verdict, for example.
“The American public has gotten its best-ever look at the criminal justice system at work, the innards of it,” said Dan Rather. “But that’s a mixed blessing.”
Not according to Steven Brill of Court TV.
If the cameras show the system to be “slow or even clumsy” or if it makes people look “incompetent or awkward or worse . . . shouldn’t people know that?” Brill asks. “Isn’t that, after all, the purpose of journalism that the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the 1st Amendment?”
Moreover, given the charges of racism and evidence-tampering in the Simpson case--charges made against the backdrop of the Rodney G. King beating, the initial acquittal of the accused police officers and the subsequent riots--live television coverage of the Simpson trial greatly reduced the potential impact of the rumor, gossip, suspicion and speculation that inevitably linger over the city and the criminal justice system.
Anyone who was interested in the Simpson case could personally see all the evidence and all the witnesses and all the arguments. Thanks to television, the public knew more about the case than even the jury did.
That, too, is a mixed blessing. Some people argue that if viewers watch a trial, they will be more willing to accept the verdict because they will better understand the ambiguities of the case. Others say that because viewers wind up being exposed to more information and evidence than the jurors are, they think they are in a better position to render a proper verdict, and they may be less willing to accept the jury’s own verdict.
Not surprisingly, most print and broadcast journalists favor cameras in the courtroom. In principle, they believe in the public’s right to know. In practice, they know it’s easier to write a story when you can actually see the event you’re covering.
Although reporters, editors, media critics, attorneys and virtually everyone else interviewed for this story agreed that the Simpson trial lasted far too long, most also agreed that cameras in the courtroom were not ultimately responsible for prolonging or sensationalizing the trial.
There have been many so-called “trials of the century” that were accompanied by sensationalized media coverage, including those of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Patty Hearst, the “Boston Strangler,” the “Chicago Seven” and Sam Sheppard. None were televised.
Many highly publicized criminal cases have dragged on too long: six months for the Charles Manson case, 20 months for the “Hillside Strangler” case, 30 months for the McMartin Pre-School molestation case. None were televised.
“Live TV does not create the lawyerly and judicial excesses that take place inside the courtroom; it just reveals them to the public,” said Ira Reiner. “Live TV doesn’t cause the media excesses that take place outside the courtroom; it operates . . . as an antidote and as something of a restraint.”
Even Deputy Police Chief David Gascon, whose LAPD officers were savaged in court by the Simpson defense team, doesn’t blame the cameras for that. “I’m not one of those people that believes that the attorneys are playing to camera all the time,” Gascon said. “I think the attorneys on both sides are driven, they’re committed, they’re exceptional attorneys . . . and whether or not there was a camera in that courtroom, they would be doing everything they could” to win.
Virtually everyone agreed that the lawyers said too much and talked too long. But that wasn’t the camera’s fault, they said; it was Judge Ito’s fault. Determined to be evenhanded and to let the case play itself out with minimal judicial interference, Ito permitted lawyers to go on far too long and to introduce arguments, theories and evidence that another judge would have kept out or cut short.
Of course, Ito may have been influenced by the television cameras himelf, indulging the attorneys in part so he wouldn’t appear heavy-handed or unfair to the nationwide audience. But if Ito was overly indulgent with the attorneys, he was anything but indulgent with reporters, and that’s the major difference between the media circus that surrounded this trial and the one that invaded--and pervaded--the Bruno Hauptmann trial.
Ito made his disdain for much of the media clear throughout the trial.
Early on, he complained bitterly about the broadcast and publication of “rank rumor and speculation, prurient sensationalism and outright fabrication.” On another occasion, he threatened to ban the Daily News of Los Angeles from the courtroom after it published a story about a jury questionnaire before he had officially released the questionnaire.
But Ito was not immune to the tantalizing allure of the television camera. During jury selection, at the same time that he was criticizing and threatening news organizations and warning prospective jurors to avoid exposing themselves to any news about the case, he appeared on KCBS Channel 2 for an aggressively promoted, weeklong series of interviews with Tritia Toyota. Among some reporters, those interviews earned Ito the nickname “Judge Ego.”
Nevertheless, at the Simpson trial, the media circus occurred outside the courtroom. In the hallways and the elevators, reporters pursued the attorneys and other principals in quest of quotes. Outside the courthouse, reporters and cameramen besieged the attorneys every day when they arrived and left, poking microphones at them and shouting questions.
In earlier generations, virtually all these exchanges would have been regarded as unseemly for lawyers. Any spinning done in criminal cases in those days was done mostly by police and prosecutors, many of whom had close relationships with reporters who had desks and cubicles right in the police station and the district attorney’s office. Reporters still have those desks and cubicles, but the development of smaller cameras, satellite transmissions and other new technology have made it possible for reporters not regularly stationed at the courthouse to broadcast from there, easily and live.
The courts became a good source of local news, especially in expanded local news hours, and defense attorneys gradually realized that they risked making their clients appear guilty by saying “No comment,” as they had always thought was proper in a pending criminal action.
They decided it was better to answer reporters’ questions than to tune into the evening news and watch footage of their retreating backsides scurrying down the courthouse steps.
It didn’t take long to go from answering questions to holding news conferences, trying to put their own spin on each day’s courtroom developments, as O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys often did in the first-floor lobby of the courthouse.
But no matter how frenzied the action in the lobby or the hallway or on the front steps of the courthouse, decorum reigned inside Judge Ito’s courtroom. Ito saw to that personally, and his bailiffs carefully monitored spectators and reporters alike, not only stopping them from talking but jabbing them awake if they happened to nod off.
During jury selection, Ito at first permitted only one reporter in the courtroom, then modified his order to allow a rotating pool of three reporters, who would later brief the hordes of media waiting outside. For the trial, Ito’s courtroom had only 58 seats, so even though almost 1,200 media representatives came to Los Angeles, only 24 seats were set aside for the press. Two book writers and five news organizations (including the Los Angeles Times) received permanent seats; the remaining 17 seats were assigned on a rotating basis to two other book writers and 39 other news organizations.
Seats were highly coveted, especially on days when crucial testimony was to be presented, and several reporters said they thought the media had “gone easy” on Ito throughout the trial for fear of arousing his anger and losing their seats.
Ito’s anger was easy to arouse. He kicked two reporters out of the courtroom for talking while court was in session. He reprimanded two other reporters for chewing gum in court, and publicly embarrassed a third by playing a videotape of her chewing gum.
From the bench, Ito monitored both the live, worldwide television feed and, though a separate “eye in the sky” security camera, what was happening in his courtroom that wasn’t being shown outside. When the “outside” cameras showed something he deemed inappropriate, he threatened several times to pull the plug on live TV coverage--and he actually did so once, briefly, during prosecutor Marcia Clark’s closing arguments.
That threw the world media into a panic. And that represents the second major difference between the media circuses accompanying the Simpson and Hauptmann trials. The world media in 1995 is vastly different from the world media in 1935. There was no live television of criminal trials in 1935. Indeed, most of the primary venues for the Simpson case--Court TV, CNN, the supermarket tabloids, the weekly TV magazine shows and the daily tabloid TV shows--didn’t exist at the time of the Hauptmann trial. There are now so many more outlets for information, entertainment and the curious hybrid known as “infotainment” that in sheer volume, no story has ever received anywhere near the prolonged, pervasive attention across so broad a media spectrum as that accorded the Simpson case.