Jurors shine in court dramas

Fleeting stars explain their verdicts in high-profile trials.

December 15, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The day John Allen Muhammad was sentenced to death for the Washington-area sniper killings, juror Dennis Bowman returned home to find his answering machine filled with messages from reporters. Then a CNN producer rolled up in a cab and asked him to go on the air.

Bowman, a hardware store employee, declined and went for a walk. Another reporter accompanied him, asking questions as they strolled the Virginia Beach boardwalk. The media attention was unrelenting, and Bowman finally agreed to speak with reporters about what he went through during the six-week trial.

In doing so, he became a star in his town and a fleeting celebrity in a country that thrusts ordinary people -- those who are jurors in high-profile trials -- into the insatiable media maw for a few days before turning off the klieg lights and moving on to the next big thing.

It's a phenomenon that is traced to the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, when the not-guilty verdict was broadcast live on national television and jurors were sought out to explain their decision. Around the same time, cable news coverage was growing and needed something to fill hours of airtime.

The jurors in the just-completed Scott Peterson murder trial in California are the latest to have to decide whether they'll speak to the news media -- and how much they'll say -- now that they are free of court-imposed restrictions.

"I thought of it as therapy," Bowman, 52, said of the interviews he gave after the sniper trial. "I would come home at the end of the day and be here with just the four walls and me, and you just want to scream sometimes because of everything you've taken in and what you have to keep inside."

By yesterday, three of the Peterson jurors had shown up in television and print interviews, including Steve Cardosi, the foreman, Richelle Nice and Greg Beratlis. Cardosi was said to be flying to New York yesterday to do more interviews.

But juror Dennis Lear, in his first interview, said yesterday that most Peterson jurors were not interested in trading on their six months in the jury box to gain 15 minutes of fame.

"It's such an emotional thing, and it's been exhausting," Lear, a 59-year-old retiree, said in a phone interview. "And I don't think it will do anybody any good for the jurors to start discussing problems or whatever went on during the deliberations. It's not a healthy thing. I don't think anybody needs that."

Lear said that when he left the courtroom Monday after the jury delivered its death sentence, he turned on his cell phone and had three messages -- from PBS, NBC and CNN. By the time he got home, he had at least a half-dozen more messages from the media. By evening, another 10.

He didn't return any of the calls, and, to avoid the media, he's not staying at his home. He even refused delivery on a letter Court TV sent via FedEx.

"I'm not interested in my 15 seconds of fame. I've had enough already," said Lear. "I can't believe all these people are that interested in reading about this case. It's an obsession. It's just crazy."

Tom Bettag, the executive producer of ABC's Nightline, said high-profile trials have become "national soap operas" because they're cheap to cover. News crews can set up outside the courthouse and file stories for months, hyping the trial and then feeding the national craving that comes from such hype.

"We've become more interested in either celebrity or celebrated crime cases that exhibit themselves in trials because they lend themselves to extended coverage, which is what you need for a cable news channel," he said. "Before the cable news channels, we didn't do those sort of stories because they're complicated cases and they take a long time to explain, and we didn't have the time to do that."

Nightline had the first broadcast interview Monday with Steve Cardosi, the foreman of the Peterson jury. Bettag said that interview, and others with jurors, are a legitimate part of covering major trials.

"This group of 12 people had to make a moral decision," Bettag said, referring to the jury's choice between capital punishment and life imprisonment. "The only way you can touch the morality of that and how you make that decision -- you can talk to judges and prosecutors -- but really the only people who can talk to that are the people who were actually put in that excruciating position."

Jurors have been in the news a lot this year -- from the Martha Stewart trial to the Peterson trial to the Tyco trial.

In the latter case, in which two company executives were accused of stealing $600 million from Tyco International Ltd. through fraud, juror Ruth B. Jordan at one point flashed what some believed to be the OK sign to defense lawyers. She was excoriated in Internet chat rooms, and the case ended in a mistrial when she received a letter and a phone call criticizing her apparent unwillingness to convict the pair.

Jordan did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

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