Lighter than Arias

The “big event” mentality surrounding notorious murder trials has been with us since before the United States was a country.  Modern America, however, probably has done more than most to portray such cases as having the same entertainment level as a championship sporting event or the premiere of a major motion picture. From the trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard to Charles Manson to O.J. Simpson, our justice system has produced no shortage of infamous murder defendants or those willing to stand in long lines for a chance to see the related court proceedings in person. 

While an informed interest in the administration of justice is generally a good thing, some “fans” of high-profile murder trials go beyond the rules of court and, frankly, the bounds of decorum. The most recent example occurred during the high-profile criminal trial of Jodi Arias, who was recently found guilty of  murdering her boyfriend in 2008. The Arias trial earned international media attention based on a variety of factors, including the gruesome murder scene and the defendant’s claim that she killed her boyfriend in self-defense.

The resulting public interest caused scores of people to turn up at a Phoenix criminal courthouse to watch the proceedings, including a woman who traveled from Michigan who arrived too late to get one of the few, first-come-first-served public courtroom seats that were made available each day. In a scene reminiscent of an NFL playoff game or a Justin Bieber concert, the Michigan woman paid $200 to a local court watcher for her spot in line. After learning of the “sale,” the trial court judge reprimanded both women, ordering the seller to pay back the $200 and giving her seat to the woman from Michigan.

The circus atmosphere – willingly fueled by the more sensationalist sectors of the fourth estate – may be entertaining, but it also trivializes the solemn and serious purpose of our criminal courts: to establish the guilt of criminal defendants beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Americans sometimes watch criminal trials as though they are foreign universe, populated by strangers, where they or no one they know or care about would ever be tried because they never commit crimes. What they’re forgetting is that the right to trial by jury and other constitutional protections are not there to protect the guilty. They exist in order to protect the innocent.  

Posted: 5/13/2013 9:31:27 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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