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The Modern Media And Sensational Trials

Cable and satellite television increasingly offers channels that appeal to specific audiences. In the 1990s and 2000s the popularity of the O.J. Simpson (1947–) murder case revealed a new interest among viewers—following the proceedings of high-profile trials. On cable, Court TV became the top channel for live trial coverage. In addition to trial coverage, Court TV also features original movies and documentaries about the justice system. Cases are presented and then analyzed by Court TV's legal experts and hosts, most of whom are attorneys themselves.

There was been no shortage of sensational trials to cover following the Simpson case. The Laci Peterson murder case in California, in which Scott Peterson, husband of the victim, was charged with killing his wife and unborn child, attracted a great deal of media coverage. Music superstar Michael Jackson (1958–) faced trial on child molestation charges, and professional basketball player Jayson Williams (1968–) was acquitted in the 2004 death of his limousine driver.

Much attention was given to another professional basketball player, Kobe Bryant (1978–) of the Los Angeles Lakers, who was charged with rape and often flew to court hearings in Denver, Colorado, by way of a private jet during the basketball season. Over four hundred television and print journalists were at the scene when Bryant made his first court appearance. With the case getting so much attention, the judge decided not to allow television cameras inside for the trial. Despite criticism about the amount of coverage given to these events, television programs about such trials continue to receive high ratings while newspapers and magazines sell in the millions when they report these stories.

The O.J. Simpson Case

On June 17, 1994, over one-third of the American public watched their televisions in astonishment. They watched as O.J. Simpson, whom many had come to know during his Hall of Fame football career and popular rental car commercials, was driven along a Los Angeles, California, freeway in a white Ford Bronco, slowly fleeing from the numerous police cars that followed him.

Five days earlier, Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were found stabbed to death outside Nicole's house in Brentwood, California. Los Angeles police had gathered enough evidence to suspect Simpson of the crime and he had agreed to turn himself in to authorities. On June 17, however, Simpson appeared to be fleeing and had threatened to commit suicide during the slow chase. The drama was shown live as network and cable stations interrupted their regular programming. Drivers along the freeway abandoned their cars to watch (some cheering) as Simpson's vehicle, driven by a friend, passed. Simpson's journey ended at his mother's home about two hours later. The event was the first in what would become a media frenzy over a trial that became a national obsession.

Media coverage of the Simpson trial, which began in January 1995, was unlike any other. Over two thousand reporters covered the trial, and 80 miles of cable was required to allow nineteen television stations to cover the trial live to 91 percent of the American viewing audience. When the verdict was finally read on October 3, 1995, some 142 million people listened or watched. It seemed the nation stood still, divided along racial lines as to the defendant's guilt or innocence. During and after the trial, over eighty books were published about the event by most everyone involved in the Simpson case.

Simpson hired a group of lawyers the media called the "Dream Team," because of their high fees and notoriety. This group O.J. Simpson, smiling after a jury announced its not guilty verdict. (AP/Wide World Photos)

included Johnnie Cochran, who had defended other celebrities such as Michael Jackson, forensics expert Barry Scheck, and noted law professor Alan Dershowitz. Despite "a mountain of evidence" directly implicating Simpson in the murders, Simpson's lawyers argued that their client was framed by a racist police detective, Mark Furhman.

Furhman had previously been recorded on tape making racist statements about black Americans. The defense lawyers accused Furhman of planting a leather glove with the blood of the victims at the scene of the crime. Scheck managed to discredit police tactics in examining the blood and fingerprinting evidence.

During his closing argument, Cochran sharply criticized Furhman and the police. Throughout the nation, citizens divided according to race; many blacks thought Simpson was framed, most whites believed nobody but Simpson could have committed the crimes. The jury found Simpson not guilty on both counts of murder; he was, however, found guilty in a civil suit for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Ten years after the murders, O.J. Simpson remains a free man and no one has been charged in the deaths.

Mixing popular culture with the legal process continues. In May 2004, an Ohio murder trial began with television cameras in place to record the entire process—including jury deliberations (discussions about the case in order to reach a verdict). The Ohio state court system approved the cameras, but only after the judge, jury, and prosecuting and defense attorneys all agreed to certain rules. The film footage will become part of a documentary for ABC television entitled State v.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawMedia - History Of The Media And The Courts, Tried In The Media, The Crime Of The Century