TELEVISION / Summing up the case for the televised trial

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING The Menendez Trial (BBC2 Sun) with a lubricious gawp, I was uncomfortably aware now and then that it wasn't quite enough to be thinking 'Crikey, so that's what a shotgun does to a victim' and 'They'll have to get Glenn Close to play the defence attorney'. The televising of court cases is a matter on which one is expected to have weightier thoughts. One party holds that it demeans the process of justice to convert it from sombre forensic procedure into a chart-topping staple for cable television. Others would argue that if justice should be seen to be done, then it is perverse to argue that it shouldn't be seen to be done by millions of people at prime time, even if they eat hot dogs during the cross-examination. In-camera justice is better than in camera justice, they would argue, to which their opponents would snap back, 'That's not the alternative; a courtroom should be a public place but doesn't have to be a public spectacle.'

After watching BBC 2's gripping digest of the five-and-a-half-month trial, you could certainly understand the plight of the juries a little more clearly (mistrials have been declared in both cases owing to their inability to agree on a verdict). Before watching this programme, I was confident, with the serene confidence of prejudice, that both brothers were calculating Yuppie murderers who had invented a story of sexual and physical abuse in mitigation of a horrible crime. After watching this highly condensed version of the evidence, it wasn't possible to be quite so sure any more and that alone may offer some sort of defence for televised hearings.

Certainly the argument that television may turn justice into showbiz seemed oddly redundant. Jury trials have been showbiz for centuries, the moment that the usher calls for order a curtain-up on a parade of actorly skills and storytelling. At one moment early in the defence cross- examination, Lyle recited the code his father had drilled into him: 'Today I will be master of my emotions. If I feel depressed, I will sing. If I feel sad, I will laugh. If I feel ill, I will double my labour. If I feel fear, I will plunge ahead. If I feel inferior, I will wear new garments . . .'

Knowing California, you can probably already buy T-shirts printed with this Desiderata of High Achievement (the shopping clause would be particularly congenial) but, in the flow of narrative the defence wanted to put forward, it was rather telling, a hint that the father may have schooled his children to a Spartan suppression of their feelings. Intriguingly, Lyle also claimed that his father used accounts of Greek warriors sleeping with their comrades to justify his sexual abuse. The jury had to decide whether this web of detail was real or merely realistic.

Viewed as performance, Lyle's testimony was persuasive too. If this was acting, it was the sort of meticulous method performance that wins prizes - a gulping, distressed reluctance to name the deed that worked effectively on your sympathies. On the other hand, his recall of the murder itself seemed a little cinematic, a little too lavishly storyboarded and there was some damaging testimony from the boys' therapist, who stuck it to an aggressive defence counsel by claiming that he feared he would be murdered if he revealed their confession to the police.

Even if the brothers weren't acting, though, the lawyers were going for broke. 'You just thought a dollars 9,000 18-carat gold Rolex would go well with your funeral suit, is that right?' said one of the prosecution lawyers, pushing on the sore spot of Lyle's post-murder shopping spree. For the defence, Erik's counsel set up a dramatic little stunt for her summing-up in which she stabbed pins through a photograph of a man's torso, reminding them of her client's tales of abuse. This was LA Law on a fraction of the budget.

Perhaps if I had sat there for five and a half months rather than 65 minutes, I would have had a clearer idea of whether they were guilty or not. In the absence of that, it seemed valuable to be reminded that justice won't always deliver in time for the ad-break.