Who’s Glued To Their TVS?

South African writer Susan Erasmus might be right in her recent piece,” Why we are so glued to the Oscar trial,” posted  on the South African news website “Health 24″ that people are fixated on high-profile trials–particularly those with celebrities and sports heroes as defendants–the way they were public executions in times past.

But Erasmus is way off base when she asserts that the Oscar Pistorius trial in her home country has “grabbed worldwide attention in the same way people were glued to the screen for the O.J. Simpson trial.”

She’s correct about the Simpson trial grabbing worldwide attention. An example is a lawyer in Los Angeles who visited Simpson trial judge Lance Ito after returning from a trip that included Tibet. Even there, she said, all anybody had to say was “the trial” and it was instantly understood the reference was to the Simpson trial.

First, I have a pretty extensive circle of contacts and more than a thousand Facebook friends. None, however, mention the Pistorius trial or post anything about it that shows up on my Timeline.

That is not to say that people in this country and those I know in other countries don’t know about Pistorius, the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and I’m sure his trial is being followed by niche audiences, such as sports media, the Olympics community, disabled groups, the legal community and most certainly by South Africans. But it’s not a topic of daily–or even infrequent–conversation in general outside of that country.

I don’t know if any government official has asked the Pistorius judge to suspend the trial on election day as the California secretary of state did Ito, for fear the trial would contribute of a lower-than-normal voter turn out.

And we’ll see if television networks suspend or break into regular programming on Pistorius verdict day anywhere other than South Africa as it they did in the U.S.  when the Simpson verdicts came in.

I think “interest in” is a much better assessment of the non-South African public so far as the Pistorius trial is concerned, instead of “glued to.”

Two Trials in Black and White

Among the parallels observed between the current trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius and the 1995 criminal trial of former football star O.J. Simpson is race. Just how racial issues and racism manifests and manifested themselves in those trials are somewhat different as might be inferred by a recent Los Angeles Times piece, headlined “Subtext of the Oscar Pistorius trial: South Africans’ fear of crime” by Robyn Dixon.

As in white South Africa, as in white United States, “Because we see whites as victims and blacks as perpetrators, our collective sympathies are always with whites. There hasn’t been a commensurate articulation of concern about white male violence as a threat to the fabric of our society,” Dixon quotes Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the nonprofit Open Society Initiative for Southern African, from Msimang’s article “Crossing the street to avoid white men: A conversation about violence” posted on the news website Daily Maverick. “In our national psyche” Msimang wrote, “whites (and of late middle-class people of all races) are almost always the victims of black male violence. Blacks, on the other hand, are rarely worthy of mention as victims at all. If they are, it is at the hands of other blacks.”

Among the differences? The defendant in the Simpson trial was black, albeit an admired and, by some, beloved celebrity. Pistorius, or course, is white.  My guess is that the cheerleaders and fans, along racial lines, have markedly different views regarding guilt or innocence.  Simpson’s acquittal also elicited differing reactions, primarily along a racial divide.

It will be interesting to see if the Pistorius verdict receives a similar response.

OJS Murders the New “Springtime for Hitler”?

Not quite. Or maybe, more than.

“OJ: The Musical” is supposedly a mockumentary of  about the making of a ridiculous musical based on the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson, according to The Plain Dealer‘s Cleveland.com‘s review, Cleveland International Film Festival 2014: ‘OJ: The Musical’ fires up songs from Judge Ito et al.

After humorous reviews from other film festivals, the flick is set to open at the Athens International Film Festival. Athens, as in Athens, Ohio, not Athens, Greece, and Athens as in home of Ohio University, which is the alma mater of the film’s screenwriter and director, Jeff Rosenberg.

I think enough time has elapsed so even I might be amused. Even so, my great wish is that everyone who sees this “musical” would read what really happened at and behind the scenes of that 1995 trial in Anatomy of a TrialThat’s real eyeopener.

Despite Coverage, Pistorius is No OJS

Expert: Screaming gives Pistorius ‘major problem’ is the most recent headline I’ve seen about the murder trial of South African double amputee Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. I see headlines like that only because I set an Oscar Pistorius Google News Alert and because they occasionally appear on my AOL daily news feed.

For months before the Pistorius trial began, pundits predicted that it would equal or eclipse the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial in terms of public interest and media coverage, which includes cameras in the courtroom.

While it has gotten extensive coverage, now that the case in deep in the prosecution’s evidence presentation phase, it is clearly nowhere close to the international phenomenon of the Simpson trial, or even the 2005 Michael Jackson child-molestation trial, both in California.

The fact that these are not nightly news or daily newspaper headlines in this country give evidence that the Pistorius trial has yet to rise to the level of an international notorious trial, a la Simpson and Jackson.

This anecdote is telling:

In the early stages of the Simpson trial, a lawyer friend of the trial judge, Lance Ito, told him about a trip she had just returned from that included a stay in Tibet where all anybody had to say was “the trial” and everybody knew without question the reference was to the O.J. Simpson trial. I venture to guess that nothing close to that is occurring with Pistorius in Tibet or most countries other than South Africa.

Also, during the Jackson trial, hordes of Jackson fans in countries around the globe not only followed it, but rallied in support of him in large gatherings and other venues. I don’t see that happening–either in support of or against–Oscar Pistorius.

It is, though, an interesting trial to follow.

The Book Author Who Didn’t Dies

Reading this morning that Fatal Vision and The Selling of the President 1968 author Joe McGinniss died, I repressed the urge to say, another one bites the dust.

Joe’s death follows that of a number of notables from the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial–fellow authors Dominick Dunne and Joseph Bosco; defense attorneys Robert Kardashian and Johnnie Cochran; newspaper reporters Andrea Ford, Dennis Schatzman and Robin Clark (killed in an automobile collision late in the trial), at least one juror, Tracy Kennedy–although McGinniss ended up shucking the chance to profit from it after investing daily attendance at court proceedings for more than a year.

In Anatomy of a Trial (published in 2009 by University of Missouri Press), Joe makes his entrance at my office in the Los Angeles County Courthouse within days of Joe Bosco. Here are a couple of excerpts that spotlight the rivalry and contempt among writers of various stripes who intended to cover the trial:

Bosco, author of Blood Will Tell, about a DNA-based court case in New Orleans, arrived in my office in late August 1994 full of hand wringing and teeth gnashing over the news that he might not get a courtroom seat in the Simpson case. …

With his graying mane flopping over a forehead festooned with bushy eyebrows, he hrumphed at newspaper reporters, who were “at the bottom of the food chain,” getting seats over himself, Joseph Bosco, who had paid his reporting dues and graduated to the fine art of writing books. He spewed indignation that Fatal Vision author Joseph McGinniss, whom Bosco called a hack, was going to get a seat and Bosco might not. The very idea was unthinkable to any rational human being who had the slightest modicum of intelligence or literary knowledge. …

Joe McGinniss was the yin to Bosco’s yang. Quiet, unpretentious and anything but flamboyant, McGinniss washed in to my office not long after Bosco with the advent of Southern California’s rainy season. Intent on learning the terrain and players, he seemed oblivious to his dripping jacket and rivulets of water running off strings of his gray hair and into his eyes. He announced sometime into the trial that he wasn’t talking to anyone or doing any research. His book would be from the jury’s point of view and based entirely on what occurred in the courtroom.

Although Bosco beat McGinniss to Los Angeles, McGinniss had the upper hand. Within days after Ito got the Simpson case, McGinniss wrote to him requesting a seat. Ito agreed, then told me. It was a done deal. Ito would not go back on his word, even though in hindsight after learning the ultimate fate of the book McGinniss said he was going to write, he might have decided otherwise. At the end of the trial McGinniss ditched his book project and reportedly took off for Europe to cover international soccer.

Veteran reporter, Linda Deutsch, who is in her 47th year with The Associated Press as its renowned legal affairs reporter whose coverage goes back to the 1970 Charles Manson mass murder trial, was outraged than any book author got a media seat at the trial. Here’s what I wrote in Anatomy about her reaction:

While hers was a cult of professionalism as opposed to the cult of personality that imbued so much of the nouveau journalism that was emerging in the mid-1990s, Deutsch could express righteous indignation with the best of them. An example is when the Simpson trial seating plan included seats allocated to people who were writing books.

“That’s unconscionable,” she fumed, puffing up her five-foot-tall frame, her cloud of champagne-colored hair fairly shivering. “They’re just in it for the money. They won’t be reporting anything to anyone until their books come out months after the trial.”

And Joe McGinniss’s didn’t come out at all, and never will.

While we all know none of us will get out of this life alive, the departure is a bit unnerving when one among the Simpson-trial ranks, which, as Deutsch observed at the memorial gathering for Robin Clark, who was about 40 years old, that Joe McGinniss held at his rented Beverly Hills house following Clark’s shocking and untimely death in August of 1995, had become family.

When Existing Misinformation Isn’t Enough, Make More Up

It’s bad enough that misinformation and misperception continues to swirl after nearly 20 years about the O.J. Simpson trial and the presiding judge, Lance Ito. But when some yokel comes blowing onto the scene who neither attended nor knows anything about the trial and participants, except what he apparently fabricates in his own reality, it’s more than maddening.

Enter one Don McNay, who bills himself as “Guardian & Conservator for Injured People. Best Selling Author. Award winning Settlement Planner” and somehow won a berth on the Huffington Post. The gimmick for his March 4, 2014, blog post was “How Judge Lance Ito and OJ Simpson Ruined the Legal System”.

McNay’s major beef is that the judge allowed camera coverage of the trial. Whether or not Ito should have allowed cameras, or indeed whether any judge should ever allow cameras in any courtroom, is a matter that has been hotly debated for nearly two decades in the Simpson case, and for a good decade longer than that in general.

McNay might think Ito doing so was a bad idea, and I’m not about to get into that fray here — I covered that in detail in “Anatomy of a Trial”. As the saying goes, he’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.

The first blatant nonfact in McNay’s blog post is, “Ito went on The Tonight Show and other entertainment programs like a small-time comic trying to work his way to Vegas.”

I can state categorically and unequivocally that Ito neither went on The Tonight Show – not before, not during and not after the trial — nor did he go on any other entertainment programs.

Neither did he grant any interviews — not during and not after the trial. And unlike just about every other person involved in or associated with that case, neither did he write a book or capitalize in any way from presiding over that case.

So where does McNay get off saying such a thing? It’s called exploitation. Demonize and falsely accuse someone who either can’t or won’t defend himself in order to make a name for and/or puff up his own self.

You don’t have to read too far into McNay’s blog post before tripping over another whopper.

“After the (1954 Sam ) Sheppard trials, televisions were basically banned from the courtroom until Judge Ito made his horrible decision.”

That sentence is a three-fer.

(1) Dr. Sam Sheppard had only one trial in 1954. His retrial was in 1966.

(2) Televisions in the courtroom were never the issue. Cameras were. Both still (or print) and television cameras.

(3) Assuming McNay meant television cameras, cameras were not banned from courtrooms from the 1954 Sam Sheppard trial until the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Florida pioneered with permitting courtroom camera coverage in the 1970s. California began permitting cameras on a trial basis in 1980 and made a permanent state court rule change in 1984, allowing cameras in its courtrooms, contingent on several factors.

Many, many courtroom proceedings included camera coverage during those years, including the 1992 Rodney King beating trial and the 1993 Menendez brothers trial.

Worse than McNay’s ignorance or willful disregard for factual accuracy, and the Huffington Post giving the guy a forum is his premise that the U.S. judicial system is so weak and ineffectual, that one judge and one trial could ruin it.

Despicable. 

 

 

Is Cameras in Pistorius Trial a Mistake

That’s what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is asking, according to a phone call I got today. Naheem, with the CBC, said the network is exploring that question in the wake of the judge presiding over the Oscar Pistorius murder case deciding to allow camera coverage of the trial, which, Naheem said, will be a first in South African judicial history.

After about a half-hour conversation, Naheem thanked me for providing such great background information and said she would let me know if the network would want to include me in a program on the subject, scheduled to air on Monday.

In a follow-up phone call, Naheem said the producers had decided to go with a Canadian voice.

By the time she called back, I had projected myself all the way to serving as a consultant on the trial, complete with envisioning traveling to South Africa. Oh well, it would have been nice.

In truth, it was really nice to have gotten Naheem’s call in the first place.

As for the answer to the question, is allowing camera coverage of the Pistorius trial a mistake. The answer is, that all depends.

Multiple factors go in to that phenomenon.

One, is the rules and guidelines the judge and court establish.

Another is the media acknowledging, understanding and complying with those rules and guidelines.

Ensuring that members of the media will face meaningful consequences if they violate rules or don’t observe guidelines.

Yet, another how firmly the judge/court enforces said rules and guidelines.

Another is anticipating potential problems and situations before they occur.

An important one is including media input at the beginning of the trial and media accommodation. planning process, respecting their needs and the jobs they have to do and including those needs into the logistics and process as much as possible.

It depends on much more than that, that’s a start.

Great detail is in my book Anatomy of A Trial, which is available from the publisher, University of Missouri Press, and Amazon.com.