Time to Reform the Criminal Justice System with Court TV

By Brennan, Thomas E. | Insight on the News, July 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

Time to Reform the Criminal Justice System with Court TV


Brennan, Thomas E., Insight on the News


Certainly, no event in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence has caused so much public awareness of courts, lawyers, judges and the whole retinue of supporting personnel as the O.J. Simpson trial. Nor has the judicial system ever been so widely criticized as inadequate, antiquated and irrelevant.

Nearly everyone agrees that the Simpson trial is a media circus. To many avid viewers, the issue of whether the defendant is guilty of the crime has long since been overshadowed by myriad side issues, personal disputes, racial feelings and sensational revelations both inside and outside the courtroom.

At issue is whether our society can impanel an impartial jury and shield it from the swirl of information, events, allegations and insinuations fostered and reported by the media. Sequestration of the jury, once thought to be a sufficient device to maintain impartiality, has been seen as a clumsy, expensive, cruel and ineffective tool.

Repeated sidebar conferences, excusing the jury to hear arguments of counsel or offers of proof, meaningless admonitions by the court that jurors ignore this or that remark have all contributed to the picture of a ponderous, disjointed, irrational, sensationalized process.

The culprit is the system itself. Unless the courts can move into the 21st century and adapt our ancient adversary system to modern technology, there eventually will be such public frustration with the administration of justice that our whole system of jurisprudence will be at risk.

It has long been obvious to me that television will either make or break courtroom justice in America; the Simpson trial has demonstrated how television can break it. But thoughtful observers can see in the Simpson trial the seeds of a new and better system, one that will do for the citizens of the next century what the present system did for our forebears.

Modern video technology can create prerecorded trials, in which all of the testmony, the opening statements and closing arguments of the lawyers, and the instructions of the judge are recorded on tape, spliced together in a continuous format and presented to the jury as a completed package.

The preparation of the tape would be an orderly process, completely within the control of the trial judge. Camera crews would be county employees working under the direct supervision of the court. Commercial and network television would be barred from the recording studio in which testimony is taken.

The recording process should be adversarial. Behind closed doors, like a grand jury proceeding or the taping of a pretrial deposition, the recording of testimony would begin immediately after the indictment. Witnesses could be excused and recalled. Discovery and preservation of testimony would be intermingled. Irrelevant matters could be expunged from the final tape.

Only when both sides had completed their proofs and the final video trial was ready to be seen by the public, would jurors be selected and impaneled. No need for long, cruel, ineffective sequestration of the jury.

Gone would be the day when the attorneys' histrionics steal center stage from the search for truth. The lawyer's art would change -- counsel would function more like actors. The words coming out of the mouths of witnesses, rather than the speeches and insinuations of the attorneys, would be the primary focus of the jurors.

Of course, lawyers would still make opening statements and closing arguments. Their forensic skills would still be needed. But their presentations would be more compact, more intelligible, less rambling and repetitive.

Similarly, a judge would be able to choose his jury instructions carefully after seeing exactly what the jury will be viewing. The court's charge to the jury would be more succinct and relevant.

The jury's attention to the evidence would be immeasurably better. A six-month trial using today's outmoded system would be condensed to a few days or at most a week or two. …

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