Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2003 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Jonathan Turley

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Sniper case lacks appeal, public lessons of other cases | 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.

Donate to JWR

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.

Every weekday publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

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.

10/02/03: Is a soldier's life worth more than $650?
08/26/03: One justice wields too much power on today's Supreme Court. It's time to make the top bench much bigger
08/11/03: Don't let jobs grow on family trees
06/26/03: A Ruling That Only Goldilocks Could Love; We still don't know how much weight to give race in college admissions
06/24/03: 'Educating' Congress at the hands of lobbyists
06/12/03: Crooked arm of the law
06/10/03: Defense on lay-away
05/23/03: Innocence doesn't pay, either
05/15/03: A see-no-evil parole system
05/08/03: An American Gulag?
05/01/03: CUNY Law gives grads a cynical parting gift
04/22/03: Congress Must Send Spammers a Message
04/16/03: End Apartheid in the State Prisons
04/07/03: NBC's sacking of Peter Arnett over a critical analysis plays well in Baghdad
03/07/03: Rights on the Rack: Alleged torture in terror war imperils U.S. standards of humanity
02/25/03: How democracy could clear our snowy streets
02/11/03: Sanity and Justice Slipping Away
01/28/03: Quit horsing around, senator
01/14/03: Public Payroll: a Family Affair; Nepotism in Washington poses a threat to institutional integrity
01/09/03: DARPA and democracy
12/24/02: The 13th juror
12/19/02: Back to the admissions morass
12/10/02: Pro-Choice at Expense of Free Speech; NOW case against abortion protester may backfire
12/02/02: A cruel bait and switch for vets
11/15/02: Junk justice
11/07/02: OUR second-class soldiers
10/30/02: 'Quirin' revisited: The dark history of a military tribunal
10/22/02: Un-American Arrests: Mass detainments of the innocent may be the ultimate form of crowd control, but the tactic is unconstitutional
10/16/02: Reverse pawn shops? Broke state officials across the country have been looking for businesses to buy their assets at a fraction of their worth to pay for budget shortfalls
10/08/02: A legal tattoo hullabaloo
10/02/02: Gagged justice sets dangerous precedent
09/25/02: The Great Salmon Rose Caper
09/17/02: Reparations: A Scam Cloaked in Racial Pain
09/12/02: This country's hidden strength
09/04/02: 1st Amendment protects even the ugliest among us
08/28/02: A secret court goes public
08/20/02: I defended Ashcroft during his nomination; he's become a constitutional menace
08/07/02: San Francisco embracing states-rights
07/31/02: Who needs Jenny Craig when you can have Johnnie Cochran?
07/22/02: The meaning of justice and the madness of Zacarias Moussauoi
07/16/02: The President vs. the Presidency
07/08/02: How one woman's whims dictates the rights of millions
07/02/02: Just say 'no' to extracurricular activities
06/24/02: Missing Ted Bundy
06/10/02: A comedy of eros06/14/02: 05/31/02: Beyond the 'reformed FBI' hype
05/23/02: Do we really need a Federal Marriage Amendment?
05/19/02: No "battlefield detainee" should leave home without a U.S. birth certificate
05/10/02: The perfect constitutional storm
04/26/02: 'Slave of Allah' wounds justice
04/12/02: The importance of being nameless
04/05/02: The adjusted value of justice
03/18/02: How Clinton got off: A law professor's take
03/11/02: Profiling and the terrorist lottery
03/05/02: Yes, Sharpton, there was a failure of justice
02/28/02: The Lay of the land
02/14/02: Living in constitutional denial
02/05/02: Legal Lesson for Afghanistan: War's Not a Slip-and-Fall Case
01/25/02: Sever "Jihad Johnny"'s ties to his homeland
01/21/02: "Out of sight, out of mind," but they're still prisoners
01/14/02: Your papers, please!
01/07/02: Prescription for disaster
12/18/01: Madison and the Mujahedeen
12/07/01: In the U.S., espionage crime is easy to understand but difficult to prove
11/19/01: What type of 'creature' would defend bin Laden?
11/19/01: Could bin Laden be acquitted in a trial?
10/28/01: The ultimate sign of the different times in which we are living
10/25/01: Al-Qaida produces killers, not thinkers
09/28/01: The Boxer rebellion and the war against terrorism
08/31/01: Bring back the silent Condit
08/27/01: Working out the body politic

© 2002, Jonathan Turley