Justice for all The nation tunes in to sensational trials

February 10, 1992|By Mary Corey

A MILWAUKEE man turns corpses into love slaves! A heavyweight champ is accused of doing wrong by a beauty queen! A black bra spells guilt or innocence for a senator's nephew!

Normally the tabloids would have to visit the back lots of Hollywood or board UFOs to glean such scandalous material. But these days, thanks to a spate of sensational trials, the revered courtrooms of America are dispensing juicy, and sometimes gruesome, intimacies with their justice.

Consider the evidence:

* An expert in the Jeffrey Dahmer sanity trial, in which jurors are deciding whether the Milwaukee man was insane when he killed and dismembered 15 young men, has testified that Mr. Dahmer got "sexually excited" when he slashed the stomachs of his victims and saw "so many colors in the internal organs -- red, blue, yellow."

* During the trial of former world heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, who is charged with raping a Miss Black America contestant, a witness claimed the boxer was "feeling up other girls' behinds and feeling other girls' breasts" during a rehearsal.

* And in William Kennedy Smith's trial, defense attorneys used the accuser's black bra as well as testimony that the defendant had only a "partial erection" to help win a not guilty verdict on rape charges.

These proceedings confirm what movie producers and talk show hosts have long known: Give the public some combination of sex, violence, perversion and celebrities and they'll tune in. Thanks to Courtroom Television Network and Cable News Network, Americans were able to witness for the first time a high-profile trial on television. (Court TV is only available in Elkton, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, according to network spokesman.)

But are these trials pure entertainment for the public? Exercises in titillation? Or is there educational value in following them?

"If you want lurid sensational spectacle, this is a great time to be alive," says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research center in Washington.

Merrill Brown, senior vice president for corporate and program development for Court TV, weighs in with a different opinion: "There's no question that the trials are entertaining. But it's very much designed to be educational at the same time as it's intriguing television."

Yet legal scholars like Michael Millemann believe these celebrated proceedings often give a false sense of the system, confirming the public's notion that real life is like TV's "L.A. Law."

"It's not at all representative of America's judicial system day in and day out. That glitzy package obviously doesn't introduce viewers to overcrowding in the Baltimore city jail, huge dockets in Maryland district court or the incredible amalgamation of defendants," says Mr. Millemann, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Law School.

"One could look at those trials and conclude that defendants have $3 million in a defense kitty and four or five lawyers to work on their cases for months."

Washington lawyer Greta Van Susteren disagrees. She says that seeing the process firsthand serves a public function by demystifying courtroom events. "The one thing the public ought to take away from this is how fair we try to be. . . . They also learn that trials are quite dull. Even the most exciting one can get dull after . . . looking at underwear for the 50th time," says Ms. Van Susteren, who served as a legal expert for CNN during the Smith and Dahmer trials.

The fact that these cases also have spawned ice cream flavors named after participants (the Smith trial) and serial killer trading cards (the Dahmer trial) illustrates how these solemn events can turned into public spectacles.

"Our institutions are being reduced to objects of cheap entertainment, and public life is being coarsened," says Dr. Lichter. "Every year one more unspeakable thing becomes cocktail party chatter."

Even George Bush has entered the fray. Several months ago, the President voiced concerns about the graphic testimony during the recent Smith trial. "I think the American people have a right to be protected against some of these excesses. . . . I'm worried about so much filth and indecent material coming in through the airwaves and through these trials into people's homes," he said.

Yet studies show that, with the Smith trial at least, Americans wanted to know. The ratings for CNN during the trial were four times higher than usual. And according to a survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press, more people "very closely" followed the trial than last year's Super Bowl.

Such news only confirms what University of Baltimore law student Anna Albertie already knew: "Sex sells."

She sees a common theme in these trials and other headline-grabbing stories of recent months -- the Bill Clinton-Gennifer Flowers controversy, the Clarence Thomas hearings and Magic Johnson's admission that he has the AIDS virus.

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