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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your Honor, I Object!

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Anyone interested in the Casey Anthony case (young Florida mother accused of killing her 2 year old, Caylee), and most true crimers can't avoid following the case at least to some degree, will know that Judge Belvin Perry has been offering up his thoughts the last few days about "the media."

casey anthony, belvin perry

In solemn tones that barely conceal the steam coming out of his ears, Judge Perry tells us never in his thirty years has he seen such media coverage in a court case, it has certainly never happened in the State of Florida and it even "dwarfs" the O.J. Simpson trial. He goes on to say the media has "changed" and scolds the reporters and producers following Casey Anthony for their pursuit of "ratings" and other sins that seem more terrible than, well, murdering a bubbly little girl, stuffing her in a bag and tossing her into the neighborhood woods.

No one has more respect for the judiciary than do I, but this time, Judge Perry is showing his slip. Did he not notice a charming little Florida sideshow known as the Anna Nicole Smith case? That one had so much media interest the judge himself landed a reality TV show deal. Oh, gee, before that, we had an itty bitty custody dispute in Florida about a kindergartener named Elian. Seems to me a few reporters and cameras showed up for that one. Oh, who was that guy? (said in the voice of David Spade at his most sarcastic) He was known for being handsome? Oh, yeah. Ted was the guy's name. Ted Bundy. Seems he brought a bit of media attention to Florida.

That's just off the top of my head, but three cases should suffice to outshout Judge Perry's assertion about Florida cases so I'll move on.

It's nice that Judge Perry remembers O.J. Simpson, but did Scott Petersen slip his mind? Hollywood types like Robert Blake, Phil Spectre and Michael Jackson? Professional athletes Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick and Mike Tyson? College athletes from the Duke LaCrosse team? I'm getting tired of all these cases from Judge Perry's own lifetime (adult life, at that) that keep popping into my head. I'm going to move on again.

The judge says the media has "changed" and apparently, lost some sort of moral restraint he believes it once had that conformed with his own idea of how reporters should behave.

Hmmmm.....in the 1930s, the case of "trunk murderess" Winnie Ruth Judd created a vortex of media melodrama, using cutthroat and under the table tactics that would make most of today's reporters blush.

(archive newspaper above from 1931)

And then there's the Lindbergh baby, Lizzie Borden, Cinque,* and on and on and on through this nation's history and far back into Europe's history as well.

Judge Perry, you see, named his own blindspot when he kept saying never in "my" court, "my" career, and "my" experience. He finds the media attention alarming because he, personally, has never been closely involved with it. He erroneously concludes neither has anyone else.

But if you are a professional reporter, instead of a professional jurist, your perspective is vastly different. You know this kind of media attention happens constantly. You know the world not only continues to spin on its axis, it thrives on the fresh air. It's actually one of the things that makes this country special. We don't have star chambers here, we have a free press. And, thank heaven, we have a citizenry that is interested in the judicial system and engaged in the public dialogue. Your honor, media interest--and, by proxy, that of their readers/viewers/listeners--is a sign of good things, not bad.

The fact that Casey Anthony deserves due process is not in conflict with this. It is the court's job to give her due process, not some just out of college producer's at InSession TV. In order to put this burden on all the interns, producers, beat reporters and columnists covering the trial, Judge Perry has crafted a fancy little magic trick involving special conditions and blackmail. When the smoke clears from this sleight of hand, gosh, the trained dove fluttering away looks a lot like "prior restraint" and other unsavory things we usually feel are assaults on the U.S. constitution. I have a hard time understanding how protecting Casey Anthony's rights needs to be done at the expense of those of the the press. The Bill of Rights makes it clear, and wisely so, that kings and dukes and parliaments are not to stop American citizens from finding out what's going in the world and that the press is the agent of the free flow of information.

The judge is concerned about the jury pool for Casey Anthony's trial. That's as it should be. Here's a little secret, your honor, most of the press would be relieved if it were taken out of their hands. The jury isn't the story, Casey and Caylee are. If some want to put endless resources into pursuing the info, that's their problem. The stories will be limp and self-limiting. You'll get your "unsaturated" jury.

Simply seal the location of the jury selection. Apply the seal to all parties. Don't give special cutesy passes to those who agree to sign special made-in-the-treehouse-pinkie-swear-cross-my-heart documents.

But it's too late for that. You've thrown down the gauntlet. Now you've got newsroom lawyers clustered in New York and Atlanta weighing the pros and cons of signing the pirate's oath and fighting it in court later. Chances are good they'd win.

But, for heaven's sake, Judge Perry, at least stop thinking of Casey Anthony as so special. On the other coast, ask Lindsay Lohan's judge how many reporters are interested in that case. Look up the cases I've cited here, then remind yourself of dozens and dozens more. No, Casey is not special. The right of due process afforded to defendants in this country, however, is. But, your honor, please don't forget that so is our free press.

*For a quick look at Cinque and how he became a media darling in pre-Civil War America, take a look at Chapter 12 of my book, A SUDDEN SHOT: THE PHOENIX SERIAL SHOOTER.

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