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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER FOUR: CAMERAS AND CIRCUSES : 'The American public has gotten its best-ever look at the criminal justice system . . . but that's a mixed blessing.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

The O.J. Simpson story has dominated the nation's news media and the national consciousness in a way unmatched since Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnaped 63 years ago.

H.L. Mencken, the journalist and social critic, called the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnaping and murder of 20-month-old Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. "the biggest story since the Resurrection."

The kidnaping took place in March, 1932, and by the time Hauptmann went on trial in January, 1935, "the newspapers and all the other media--radio, newsreels and even nascent TV--had taken part in the unfolding story and developed every excruciating detail," said Paula Hass, a history professor at UC Berkeley.

The press corps for the Hauptmann trial was 700 strong, including some of the most famous bylines of the day: Walter Winchell, Heywood Broun, Arthur Brisbane, Fannie Hurst and Adela Rogers St. Johns. Authors Edna Ferber, Damon Runyan, Kathleen Norris and Alexander Woollcott were also in attendance.

Reporters and columnists routinely wrote about "famous faces seen in court" (Ginger Rogers, Jack Dempsey, Jack Benny and Lynn Fontaine) much as the media would note the arrivals of various luminaries during the Simpson trial.

Flemington, N.J. (pop. 2,700), had no telegraph wires before it became the site of the Hauptmann trial; suddenly, 45 wires connected Flemington with London, Paris, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Melbourne and other world capitals. The result of all this media attention was "a perfect riot of lurid publicity," in the words of Oscar Hallam, former associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and chairman of a committee on publicity in criminal trials appointed by the American Bar Assn. after the Hauptmann trial.

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Public and journalistic opinion were in hysterical agreement that Hauptmann was guilty, and coverage of his trial was often far more biased than anything that critics cited in the mainstream media during the Simpson trial. Newspaper headlines spoke of "an iron-clad case against Bruno," and stories said, "Hauptmann's case crumbles" and "Hauptmann seems . . . on the [witness] stand a thing lacking in human characteristics."

Judge Thomas Trenchard allowed far more spectators in the courtroom than its seating capacity could handle; some stood and others sat on windowsills, tables or radiators. The crowd was often loud and unruly--talking, applauding, giggling and laughing. Although the judge prohibited taking pictures while court was in session, photographers routinely ignored his order, even going so far as to take pictures of a sitting juror.

Criticism of the media, the judge and the lawyers was so widespread after the trial that the American Bar Assn. appointed a series of committees to examine what had happened. The most important of those committees concluded that the media circus at the trial had constituted "the most spectacular and depressing example of improper publicity and professional misconduct ever presented to the people of the United States in a criminal trial."

Based on this committee's report and recommendations, the American Bar Assn. in 1937 amended its Canons of Professional and Judicial Ethics to include a new "Canon 35," banning all photographic and audio courtroom recordings, on the grounds that they were "inherently" disruptive and jeopardized a defendant's right to a fair trial.

The ban remained in effect for almost two decades.

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Four decades after that came the case of the People of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson.

TV cameras are now permissible in California courtrooms, as they are in 46 other states, if the judge approves. Judge Ito approved--reluctantly. The cameras were then widely blamed for the length of the Simpson trial and for the spectacle that it became--and for helping to push the taxpayers' tab for the case to $8.3 million.

Had it not been for the cameras, many critics said, attorneys on both sides would not have talked so long, and defense attorneys in particular wouldn't have used the trial as a forum to try their case simultaneously in the court of public opinion.

According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken last week, 53% of the people in Los Angeles County thought that allowing the cameras in was a mistake, and some judges are already reacting to this public sentiment.

Last Friday, when Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg banned cameras from the second trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez, Sylvia Teague, president of the Radio Television News Assn. of Southern California, called his decision "a reaction to all the criticism of cameras in the courtroom during the Simpson trial."

Three months ago, the judge in the trial of Susan Smith, accused of murdering her two young children, decided not to allow cameras in his courtroom. So did the judge in the trial of Richard Allen Davis, accused of murdering Polly Klaas. "Nothing like the O.J. Simpson case is going to happen in my courtroom," said Lawrence Antolini, the judge in the Davis case.

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