As if to deliberately underline the flimsiness of the concept, there are currently two trials-of-the-century for the world's media to scrutinise.
One, in Perugia, is the latest instalment in a legal and popular saga that feels as if it has been going on forever, but may finally come to a close this weekend; the other, in Los Angeles, also feels like it has been going on forever, but in fact only opened yesterday.
The cases of Amanda Knox, Meredith Kercher's roommate, and Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's physician, do not have a great deal in common when it comes to the specifics. But they share the same mood music.
Both are media spectaculars, exercises in legal process as refracted and magnified by the dozens of reporters following every minute. Both, likewise, centre on protagonists who might reasonably feel that this attention has done their chances of a fair shake no good at all. None of this is anything new – remember OJ Simpson, mugging for the cameras as he demonstrated to the jury's satisfaction that the glove simply wouldn't fit – but the coincidence feels, to me, about as unseemly as it gets.
As I write this the Murray trial is being broadcast on four televisions in my eyeline, and the Daily Mail website is showing pictures of Michael Jackson's corpse on a gurney under the word HOMICIDE, as revealed by the prosecutor.
Also available for our general consumption is a recording of Jackson, plainly under the influence of drugs, slurring his way through a masterplan to build a children's hospital. And I've just read the latest reports from the Knox case, where a lawyer has followed up a colleague's description of the suspect (who is, of course, appealing her murder conviction along with ex-lover Raffaele Sollecito) as a "she-devil" with his own overripe comparison to Jessica Rabbit.
Britain has its own tradition of that fascination, of course, from penny dreadfuls to public hangings to true crime dramas like Dominic West's recent version of his namesake Fred in ITV's Appropriate Adult. But where the Italian and American courts have always had, according to those who follow them, a tradition of florid rhetoric, our own judicial system has prided itself on its restraint.
Once, that might have had an edifying effect on public life. These days, it just means we pick up the live feed from overseas, instead. There are strong arguments that the British justice system isn't sufficiently transparent. In weeks like this, though, it's hard not to be grateful for the remnants of that circumspection.Reuse content