Cameras in the courtroom: Is seeing believing?

Mike Royko

December 16, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THE LEGAL EXPERTS are debating whether the William Kennedy Smith trial should have been shown on TV. Or whether any trial should be on the tube.

There's nothing new about this dispute. Some lawyers argue that courtroom cameras can make witnesses self-conscious or hams and ruin a fair trial. Other lawyers say that in a democracy, the legal process should be open for all to see.

Then there is the view of Alan Dershowitz, the colorful law professor who seems to spend as much time on talk shows as he does at Harvard.

To Dershowitz, it was a question of bad taste.

"I think television coverage is a good thing if done for an educational purpose.

"But this trial was not broadcast for its educational value but because it was titillating and salacious and because it was X-rated.

"On balance, I think the American public was miseducated and misinformed."

I'm surprised Dershowitz is so sensitive. He is a worldly fellow and has seen more than his share of the seamy side of life.

As some may remember, it was Dershowitz who handled the appeal that got Claus von Bulow, an arrogant fortune hunter, off the hook for the attempted murder of his super-rich socialite wife.

In fact, Dershowitz wrote a book about the case called "Reversal of Fortune."

I'm sure professor Dershowitz wrote the book for its educational value, the quality he says was lacking in the Smith trial.

If that's true, though, the critic who reviewed the book for this newspaper missed the point. Jon Anderson's review began:

"After reading this account of the Claus von Bulow mess, with its sleazy mix of blue bloods, blood sugar, sugar daddies, flaming queens, drug abuse, necrophilia, orgies, pimping, sadism and incest, decent folks will want to take a hot shower (and) use strong soap . . ."

And he went on to say: "One problem with this book is that it sometimes reads like a series of those self-serving, self-aggrandizing, second-guessing, single-spaced, inter-office memos that attempt to impose heroes on events that produce none. In this case, it's -- guess who? -- lawyer Dershowitz."

The book was later made into a movie. It, too, was about sleazy blue bloods.

If there was anything educational about Dershowitz's book or the movie, it was that you don't have to be poor to be a sleaze.

Considering the sleaziness of his own subject matter, I'm not sure I understand Dershowitz's disdain for the Smith trial.

True, there was explicit sexual language in the testimony. But you can flip to the cable movie channels and find all sorts of films with the f-word, the s-word, the c-word, the m-f-word and many others not heard in the trial. Or you can hear it in your neighborhood schoolyard.

And you can see naked actors and actresses doing everything that was merely being talked about in the trial, complete with moans, groans, shrieks and gasps.

During the trial, most of the central characters said they were embarrassed at having to talk about such things. But I don't recall that Dershowitz shyly wrote in his book: "I am really blushing as I write about all of these creepy people and their kinky behavior."

Being a legal scholar, Dershowitz might not have found anything educational in the Smith trial. But most people have never seen a criminal trial before. If nothing else, they discovered that it isn't at all like "Perry Mason" or "L.A. Law." They might also have learned something about the rules of evidence, testimony, and how different facts can sound in a courtroom as compared to a screaming headline.

At one time, I had qualms about cameras in courtrooms. But being a Chicagoan, I can look back and ask: "What if there had been cameras in our courtrooms over the years?"

I mean, we've probably had more crooked judges per courtroom than any city in America. We've had scandal after scandal. And judge after judge going to prison. They've taken payoffs to fix everything from drunken driving cases to crime syndicate murders.

If there had been a camera in the courtroom, one judge might have had second thoughts about saying that he found a professional hit man's word more credible than an ordinary citizen who witnessed the murder.

Now that I think about it, I wouldn't mind seeing a TV camera in every Chicago courtroom. And maybe in the judges' chambers. And inside their safe-deposit boxes.

So I have to disagree with Dershowitz. And there's one other reason. We got the sleaze in the Smith trial free. To get Dershowitz's sleaze, you had to pay for his book.

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