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Just the Facts, Ma'am

When the Gavel Comes Down, Linda Deutsch Is There

June 06, 2004|JANET KINOSIAN

If you ask Associated Press special correspondent Linda Deutsch about the most notorious trial she has covered, you may get a blank stare. After all, Deutsch, 60, has been covering infamous courtroom dramas for the wire service for 37 years. Her byline has graced, among others, the stories of Sirhan Sirhan, the Manson murders, John DeLorean, Angela Davis, Patty Hearst, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Menendez brothers, William Kennedy Smith, Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and now Robert Blake, Phil Spector and Michael Jackson. Known for her detailed reporting and canny ability to stay the course, the indefatigable reporter reviews her docket.

What was your first big trial?

I worked as a backup on the Sirhan trial. Then with Charles Manson, Associated Press sent Art Everett, an East Coast trial specialist so we'd work as a team. So he came in and looked around. The Manson girls were camped on the sidewalk outside, wrapped in saffron robes, threatening to immolate themselves like the monks and nuns in Vietnam. People were being busted for coming into the courtroom with heroin in their pockets. People were having LSD flashbacks inside the courtroom. Manson and the girls were jumping up and down screaming and being dragged out of court. One day Charlie jumped at the judge with a pencil in his hand. They were predicting it was going to last a year, which it almost did. So Art said, "You know, I think I have vacation coming," and he left and never came back. I covered the Manson trial alone for the world's largest news agency. That's how I became a court specialist.

How has television affected celebrity trials?

Thirty-seven years later, I think I've seen everything, and I walk out of a courthouse and Michael Jackson is dancing on top of an SUV. I called my office and said, "I hope you're watching this, because if you're not, you won't believe what I'm going to tell you." It was one for the history books.

Have you agreed or disagreed with most of the verdicts you've witnessed?

I don't form opinions in advance. I rarely form opinions after. I can usually tell by the end of a trial if somebody is going to be acquitted or convicted. I try to give the public enough so they can decide. In the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, I knew he wasn't going to be convicted, though I thought it might be a hung jury. I think juries are usually right. I can count on less than one hand the number of times I haven't agreed with a jury's verdict.

As a firsthand observer, do you believe there's unequal or selective justice in this country?

I had an interesting exchange with Roy Black, the lawyer who defended William Kennedy Smith, [acquitted of rape charges in 1991]. I went to him right after the verdict and asked, "You had a lot of money to work with. Would it have been different if this was just an ordinary defendant?'' He said, "We did have a lot of money and resources; we could go all over the world to get evidence; we could hire the best experts. It was pretty great." I said, "Isn't that unequal justice?" He said, 'No, that's the capitalist system." Not all rich defendants get acquitted. Martha Stewart was convicted. Patty Hearst had more money than the government. It depends on the evidence. But, yes, you have a much better chance if you have a lot of money and can get a really good lawyer.

Are trials today too media-driven?

For a long time nobody was that interested in them. Editors thought they'd take too long and were too expensive. If you had to send a reporter out of town for a year or even a few months, it took away from your staff. Now, of course, it's the biggest story going. People have realized that it's the kind of psycho-drama that you don't get anywhere else, and it's now the staple of television. If TV had been in the courtroom during the Manson trial, the country would have stopped. Every witness was Kato Kaelin.

Where do you stand on the issue of revealing jurors' identities?

I suppose I speak from bias, but from my point of view, everything should be open. There is no excuse for keeping the business of justice secret. It's the people's court. We pay for it; we should be able to know everything about what's happening. We are a part of the system, and we're entitled to be there. And if we're limited, then we can't tell [the public]. That's a message that's getting lost little by little.

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