Is it possible to overdose on Judge Alex? Is it possible to overdose on court TV in general? Do I really need to know the minutiae of Florida law, when I live in California? Am I really a closet criminal/juror/lawyer? Am I just finding more reasons for avoiding the work I should actually be doing?
These, and many questions like them, have been occupying me this week as I have sat down to watch the minute by minute coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. For those not in the know, he is on trial for the murder (Second Degree) of 17 year old, unarmed Trayvon Martin, whom he claims he shot in self-defence – or defense, as I now have to write it (along with color, favor etc. . . . but that’s another story).
So far, so relatively straightforward. But here’s the crux: Zimmerman is white Hispanic, Trayvon was black. And the black community is up in arms over what they perceive to be a racist killing.
Actually, up in arms is putting it very mildly. They have taken to Twitter declaring that Zimmerman will be raped and/or killed if he goes to jail, and certainly killed if he “walks” and tries to resume normal life.
I am gripped. I am gripped by everything.
Why George has put on so much weight (he hasn’t just eaten all the pies, he’s eaten the factory that made them), for example? Why is the Prosecution fielding witnesses that help the Defense (more of that anon)? Why had the Prosecution’s “star” witness, Rachel Jeantel (who was the last person to speak to Trayvon on the night he was killed), not been coached beforehand (“You listenin’?” she aggressively asked Defense Attorney Don West)? When the judge announces that the jurors’ lunch has “arrived”, what is it?
In my office, during the day, I have the live feed from Fox 35 in Orlando, where the trial is taking place. In my living room, I have the trial live on CNN, but with intermittent analysis. At night, I watch HLN and Fox, and Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan on CNN.
Judge Alex Ferrer, whose courtroom show Judge Alex entertains me every weekday at 2pm, has been on everything. He seems to be the only person who is up to speed on Florida law (such as the reasons behind the prosecution having to field witnesses that potentially damage them) and the legalities of a case that has “experts” responding emotively, rather than delivering unbiased opinion. Women with big hair and tombstone teeth shout at frightened men with glasses as they all try to second-guess what the jury is thinking (six people – allowed under Florida law.
You see? I am learning, so it’s technically work).
The women’s dress sense varies according to age. The younger ones go casual, like Sporty Barbie; the older ones look like Norma Desmond after a night on the tiles. Judge Alex looks like an ad for Savile Row: impeccably dressed, perfectly ironed (or “pressed” as I now call it over here), shirts and exquisitely chosen matching ties. He is by far the best looking expert and stands out as a Greek god in the Fraggle Rock of men before us, so, naturally, I agree with everything he says.
It’s not hard to do that, though, when he applies reason and the law to the evidence. But although I have always been in favour of cameras in the courtroom, what worries me with these big, publicity generating cases, is that viewer access spawns a level of hysteria from people with preconceived ideas (long before they have heard the evidence) that I suspect, with Zimmerman, will end in violence – not least because, so far, the prosecution (to me) is not proving its case, and he looks likely to go free, or, at most, have the charge reduced to manslaughter.
The hatred and aggression appearing on a second by second basis on the Twitter feed that accompanies Fox 35, is truly disturbing. If they had to weed out this kind of prejudice during jury selection, small wonder that it took them so long (interestingly, the jury is made up of six women). These are not people who want to pass judgment when presented with the facts of the case; they are vigilantes who, in reality, are mimicking the very vigilante behaviour of which they accuse George Zimmerman. This probably says more about the nature of social networking than it does about the pros and cons of cameras in court, but in this case, the ethics of the two seem inextricably linked.
The public is nevertheless fascinated by the workings of the law and, as Judge Alex points out elsewhere, if the public is allowed into the courtroom (which they are in the UK, as well as the US), all the cameras are doing is making the proceedings available to a wider audience.
Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s 1986 series LA Law ran for eight seasons on NBC in the US and was picked up, to huge critical acclaim, in the UK (I have every episode on videotape – remember videos? They were those bricks you started to chuck out at the turn of the Millennium). Dozens of law-based shows, on both sides of the Atlantic, have followed. I reckon I have seen every episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit at least half a dozen times.
The truth is, that all human life can be seen in a courtroom - love, jealousy, sex, death, prejudice, empathy, hatred – and when several of these factors come together in a big case, it is as if we are united as an audience in the very essence of life’s daily dramas, but magnified a thousand fold.
I’ve missed my daily Zimmerman dose today, as the trial is off air for the weekend. But the week’s appearances of Judge Alex are still stored in my Time Warner Cable box, so my legal fix is never more than a click away on the remote. Yes, I’m afraid I really am that sad.
Or just someone who really cares about nice laundry.