A trial of strength

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The Independent Online

The American justice system has a shaky reputation. It gives the impression that money talks louder than justice. It often seems that all a defendant need do is hire the best lawyers and he or she will be acquitted. And then there is the fact that some trials turn into media circuses - especially those that involve celebrities. The televised trial in 1995 of the actor and former American football player O J Simpson was a low point. And when the US broadcast networks began to bill the trial of Michael Jackson as the "trial of the century" it did not augur well.

The American justice system has a shaky reputation. It gives the impression that money talks louder than justice. It often seems that all a defendant need do is hire the best lawyers and he or she will be acquitted. And then there is the fact that some trials turn into media circuses - especially those that involve celebrities. The televised trial in 1995 of the actor and former American football player O J Simpson was a low point. And when the US broadcast networks began to bill the trial of Michael Jackson as the "trial of the century" it did not augur well.

The singer's acquittal on Monday will probably have reminded many of the distaste they felt in the wake of the Simpson trial. Both cases were intensely scrutinised by the media. In both cases, a millionaire celebrity hired the best lawyers money could buy. In both cases, the defendant walked free. And, more specifically, the details of Mr Jackson's lifestyle that emerged during his trial are such that it will be very difficult for him to pick up his career where he left off. Doubts inevitably remain.

But the truth is that, unlike in the Simpson trial, the American justice system performed well. The charges brought against Mr Jackson were of the most sensitive nature. Accusations of child abuse always risk producing a hysterical reaction. It was to the credit of Judge Rodney Melville that he managed to keep a sober atmosphere in court, swiftly stamping out any hint of grandstanding by lawyers or witnesses. His decision not to allow TV cameras into the courtroom was wise.

The jury also seems to have performed well. The eight women and four men gave a very good account of themselves in their post-trial press conference. According to one member: "We took this as seriously as anyone does anything in their life." They also clearly endeavoured to treat Mr Jackson like any other defendant, and to ignore his fame. In Britain, jurors are prohibited from discussing their deliberations in public. But the eloquence of the jurors in the Jackson trial strengthens the case for relaxing this rule. Allowing jurors to speak can, as we have seen, play a role in maintaining confidence in the system and help build understanding of the way it functions.

Most importantly, the jury seems to have come to the only reasonable verdict possible with regard to the charges against Mr Jackson. In the words of one juror: "We expected better evidence. It just wasn't there." The judge kept order. The media were held at a reasonable distance. The jury reached a decision solely on the strength of the evidence presented. The American legal system - at least its representatives in the Santa Maria courtroom in California - can congratulate itself on the fact that justice was seen to be done.

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