Dramatic departure for court reporter Lecture: Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press and defense lawyer Barry Scheck to share misgivings over the way TV covers trials.

October 07, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

To satisfy a taste for theatrics, New Jersey girl Linda Deutsch headed for the West Coast many years ago intent on becoming a Hollywood reporter. It worked out even better than that. She ended up with the court beat.

"I started out to cover show biz and theater, and I found out that the courtroom dramas were more exciting than any movie because it was real life and the stakes were higher. This is drama at its highest."

As a reporter with the Associated Press, Deutsch's "credits" include some of the most notorious trials of the last 30 years. Manson. Hearst. Sirhan. Angela Davis. DeLorean. Menendez. Rodney King. O.J. She covered the Pentagon Papers trial, the Exxon Valdez proceedings and the impeachment of Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham.

Because she is a reporter, one would expect Deutsch to be foursquare behind the notion that the media should be left unfettered to cover the courtroom. But having witnessed the O.J. Simpson trial firsthand, she also saw what happens when the media is unfettered in a criminal case. It wasn't pretty.

Deutsch and Simpson defense lawyer Barry Scheck are the opening speakers tonight in a lecture series at Johns Hopkins University titled "Free Speech: Media, Law, and Society." Deutsch and Scheck will address the issue of free speech and fair trials. It shouldn't be much of a debate. Both have found themselves disheartened by television coverage of trials.

Right away, for example, Deutsch concedes, "The Simpson trial was a huge setback, not just for TV but for media in general."

It wasn't the cameras in the courtroom that Deutsch found objectionable, but television coverage from outside. "TV couldn't satisfied with what was going on in the courtroom," she says by telephone from Los Angeles. "They had a lot of leaks, a lot of it inaccurate, like the stuff about trenching tools and shovels, which turned out to have no relationship to the case. There was misinformation being put out everyday, and no one checked on the facts."

Scheck, who also defended Louise Woodward, the nanny tried for murder, agrees. TV coverage often distorts what is actually unfolding in a courtroom.

Evening news accounts are often reduced to the most sensational snippets, and yet from those seconds, viewers are given the impression that they can evaluate the credibility of evidence and of witnesses.

"They think they know as much as the jurors and, of course, they don't," he says.

Equally bothersome, says Scheck, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardoza School of Law in New York, are "expert" commentators who are ill-prepared and ill-informed.

"People are quick to make comments about substantive testimony when they haven't seen what preceded it or don't have expertise in the area they are commenting on." Scheck himself served as a television commentator during the Timothy McVeigh trial, but says he made sure he read every bit of testimony before providing commentary.

Both Scheck and Deutsch agree that having cameras in the courtroom changes the behavior of the participants, who realize they are playing to a larger audience than the jury.

Scheck recalled, for instance, that the judge in the Joel Steinberg murder case in 1988 -- the first marathon television case -- admitted to moderating his behavior when his wife complained to him that he was coming off like an ogre.

Lawyers often dress for the cameras. Deutsch mentions that Marcia Clark, the Simpson prosecutor, changed her hairstyle constantly. But she doesn't believe the cameras change the behavior of lawyers. "Lawyers are performers anyway," Deutsch says. Witnesses are more likely to be aware of their television audience, none more so than Kato Kaelin, Simpson's famously dimwitted house guest.

"Kato wanted to be a TV star, so he was playing to the camera," she says.

Both Scheck and Deutsch dismiss as naive the notion that jurors insulate themselves from the television coverage. "They are susceptible to the comments of others, much more so when they're televised," Scheck says.

During the Woodward case, he says, the media harped on the decision of the slain child's parents to hire a caretaker. Because of that coverage, Scheck says, he felt compelled to tell the jury in his closing argument that the case had nothing to do with lifestyle. In effect, he was arguing with the media in front of the jury.

Scheck says he's bothered by the intensive coverage cable stations give to trials not because they're terribly important but because they help ratings. "They have a vested interest in keeping these stories alive, so they build interest to a fever pitch with this wall-to-wall coverage."

But why wouldn't they? As Deutsch says, the courtroom often provides the most intense human drama you're likely to see. "Some of it is tedious, but the high moments are incredible," she says. "O.J. trying on gloves in the courtroom. Charlie Manson leaping over a table and running at the judge. Patricia Hearst finally testifying.

"There are moments at every trial that are unforgettable."

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