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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2003 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Jonathan Turley

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Consumer Reports


Sniper case lacks appeal, public lessons of other cases


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Now that the World Series is over, America is returning to its other great pastime: the criminal trial. The case of accused sniper John Allen Muhammad opened two weeks ago and, given the amount of news coverage, one would think the trials of basketball star Kobe Bryant (charged with sexual assault) and Scott Peterson (charged with killing his wife Laci and her unborn child) had already begun.

Yet, despite the endless cable TV coverage, it would be a mistake to dismiss the public's interest in such trials as simply the blurring of entertainment and justice in America. These trials join a long legacy of criminal dramas that have shocked, inspired, angered and educated this nation.

Trials and their characters have shaped the United States. While today's citizens are a bit sketchy on great constitutional figures such as George Mason, the strongest advocate for our Bill of Rights, they know a lot about great criminal figures such as Charles Manson, whose cult family went on a killing spree in 1969 that claimed actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. We cannot deny a certain fascination with the murderous element or its gruesome work. Perhaps it is intimate interest in a life outside social controls or perhaps a certain insecurity about our own capacity for violence under the right circumstances. For whatever reason, the trials of such individuals often draw public interest that is both virtuous and vicarious.

Through a study of high-profile 20th century trials, I have explored the elements that elevate certain trials to national prominence. My findings confirmed the public's recurring desire to learn more not only about the crimes themselves, but also about the forces that motivated the criminals. By that measure, those who eagerly awaited the sniper trial could end up dissatisfied with the prosecution's technical and circumstantial case. Conversely, the trials of Bryant and Peterson are more likely to satisfy the public's fascination with suspects who either are famous or infamous.

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Many trials I studied were prominent for deep political or cultural reasons, including thinly veiled elements of racism, anti-Semitism or other social scourges. But many more high-profile trials attained national attention due to the celebrity status of the accused, such as the murder trial of movie star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1921, the statutory rape trial of actor Errol Flynn in 1943 or the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995. Certainly, this element explains the endless coverage of Bryant's case.

The Muhammad trial falls into another category: unexplained murder and mayhem. Defense attorneys describe how jurors often stare intently at a defendant's face. Jurors clearly are trying to understand the defendant, but they also want to see some explanation for horrific conduct. It is disconcerting to be told that someone could kill his wife and unborn son yet appear perfectly normal in court. On a personal level, jurors need to understand how a suspect can become so untethered from the values and norms that structure their own lives.

This is why the public is so taken by trials involving spousal or parental murders. Many people repulsed by Andrea Yates' drowning of her five children in a bathtub found themselves obsessed with her trial. It is not just the murders, but also her violation of a fundamental institution that defines our own relationships. We can imagine murderous rage, and we all have felt anger, but we do not yield to such inner demons. It was important for the jury and the public to see that Yates was insane; otherwise the most basic assumptions of parental love would shatter.

Muhammad's trial is unlikely to satisfy the public appetite for meaning. It is doubtful that the public will learn much about Muhammad or his inner demons. There are no plans for him to testify, and there is no close confidant providing revealing testimony that goes beyond accounts of a life in a freefall. The only person with access to Muhammad's mind, Lee Boyd Malvo, will not testify. We are hearing in great detail what he allegedly did, but little about why. Although we have heard compelling accounts from surviving victims, a void remains — like a morality play with only consequences and no comprehension.

Conversely, the Bryant and Peterson trials will have all of the elements that maximize public interest. With Bryant, the public will hear about the dealings of a celebrity, opening a world normally closed to average people. It also will feature the testimony of the alleged victim, who will describe the conduct of Bryant, giving the public an account of a celebrity at his least guarded moment. With Peterson, the public will hear about a marriage in decline and the classic motive of the inconvenient spouse.

Muhammad's story may not be that interesting even if it were told. Unlike many high-profile murders, Muhammad is accused of killing at a distance, with a certain antiseptic quality. Modern devices allow rage to be expressed in such distant and detached ways.

If anything, Muhammad's brief effort at self-representation might have given a jury a little insight into the defendant, but that has been replaced now by the stoic presence of a criminal defendant without a speaking role. As this tale of mayhem without meaning continues to unfold, jurors and the public are likely to learn a lot about the crimes but little about Muhammad — or, more importantly, themselves.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense attorney. Click here to visit his website. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jonathan Turley