Rerun Justice, Hollywood Style

(4 February 1997, 10:30pm CST)

In one of those rare nights of television where one's attention is drawn in several directions at once, I feel the need to comment, at last, on the OJ Simpson saga. Not so much for the case itself, but for the trend I see in southern California jurisprudence.

What do the Menendez brothers, the officers who beat Rodney King, and now OJ Simpson have in common? They escaped punishment in their first trial, but were found liable the second time around. It's fitting that all of these trials occurred in southern California, home of the Hollywood moviemaking machine, where everybody loves a sequel.

There is another common thread. In the first trial for each of these sets of defendants, there was a media circus, which was far more visible than in the second trial. The excesses of the original were toned down, the hype wasn't allowed to get out of control, and media exposure was reduced to manageable levels.

The conclusions that can be drawn here are perhaps uncomfortable. The more attention is paid to a high-profile case, the less likely the prosecution is to get a conviction. If you think someone's innocent, you'll likely want as much media scrutiny as possible.

My concern is that if you know someone's guilty, you can still employ the maximum-exposure defense to overshadow the facts of the case.

I believe in "the public's right to know." I also believe that battle cry is overused to the point of insanity. We mere mortals are incapable of knowing everything; brains explode and people buy Yanni albums when they're subjected to too much data. We have a right to know the important stuff; we also have a right to be left the hell alone far more often than the media is willing to admit.

When an avalanche of data is possible--with all the hundreds of channels on television and radio, the thousands of magazines, the millions of Internet sites--we become even more dependent on information--useful information--that we can rely on. I sat down tonight to watch television, expecting the State of the Union address, and getting a "special report" about the OJ Simpson verdict. In my part of the country, the President had finished talking and was already shaking hands before the first of the verdicts was read. Elapsed time: two hours and fifteen minutes from the time I tuned in. In those 2.25 hours I was subjected to unadulterated drivel, aerial views of OJ's car, interviews with people who had nothing substantive to say. It's not often politicians come off looking so good compared to what else is on.

I believe in the American system of justice. I believe it works more often than it doesn't. What worries me is how severely the media distorts the system; in nearly every high-profile case in recent memory, the more the exposure, the less the feeling that justice was done when all the votes are counted. Cases are heard by the tens of thousands each day in this country, unnoted by the media, and the vast majority are handled with professional efficiency. But whenever a case becomes a media circus, justice seems to be one of the first casualties.

The second OJ trial was far more subdued in terms of media, thanks largely to the iron fist of Judge Fujisaki. The hew and cry of the talking heads to the contrary, I'm damn glad they were barred from the courtroom the second time around. When the verdict was finally read, and the results forwarded by simple signs--the number and the Y or N (all eight counts resulted in a unanimous Y, judgments against Simpson), I thought it was a far more dramatic moment than in the first trial. Simple symbols, with (for some people) earth-shaking significance. On top of which, I was able to return to the more pressing concern of the Missouri-Kansas basketball game, and see what was happening in Santa Monica without having to listen to the blather. I'm smart enough to draw my own conclusions. Most of the time.

According to President Bill Clinton, the state of the union is Strong. According to tonight's verdict in Santa Monica, California, the state of the judicial system is better than it was seventeen months ago. And in Columbia, Missouri, the state of the basketball team is a lot happier than it was just a few hours ago, as it sends home (formerly) top-ranked Kansas home with its first defeat.

All things considered, it's been a pretty good night.

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