TV in court? Canada should say no to the circus

The craziest trial I ever covered was that of OJ Simpson in Los Angeles, a three-ring circus that Judge Lance Ito cleared off the rails.

It was the dawn of 24-hour cable news — only CNN at the time — and Ito allowed a television camera to remain in the courtroom throughout. Viewers couldn’t get enough of the spectacle, with all the dramatic made-for-TV moments, especially when the murder defendant tried on the gauntlet that just didn’t fit. More than 150 million pairs of eyeballs were glued to small screens for the verdict of October 3, 1995.

In La-La-Land, with a celebrity cast, Ito was as eager to see himself on the boob tube as anyone else. Perhaps the trial would not have been more dignified had it been conducted beyond the gaze of a television lens, but the camera was not an impartial observer.

Almost simultaneously with the OJ Theatre, at the University Avenue courthouse in Toronto, Paul Bernardo was tried for the murders of teenage schoolgirls Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. There were no cameras inside – indeed, they were almost never allowed, although the pandemic has forced courts to hold Zoom proceedings for the past two years.

If the State of California v Orenthal James Simpson was a legal madhouse, the most harrowing and harrowing trial of my experience was Regina v Bernardo. Wisely, Judge Patrick LeSage ruled that the court body could hear but not see the vile tapes of torture and rape that were at the heart of the case.

The families of the victims left the courtroom when these tapes were released. Except for Debbie Mahaffy, Leslie’s mother. She wanted to be there for her murdered 14-year-old daughter, maybe in some way to protect the girl, but also, I thought, to brutalize herself. Because she had locked Leslie out of the house – to teach her a lesson in coming home late again and again – the night the teenager was abducted by Bernardo.

Debbie Mahaffy, her head buried in a friend’s lap, could be heard screaming as she listened to Leslie plead for her life, begging to see her baby brother again. It was a courageous but incredibly heartbreaking testimony of love.

There is so much raw pain in our courtrooms. He is do not entertainment.

These two aforementioned lawsuits – at opposite ends of the comity spectrum – came to mind when I read a weekend article by Betsy Powell from the Star about a renewed debate and changing attitudes regarding the permission for cameras in court. Due to the COVID-induced challenges to justice, virtually streaming proceedings, the technology certainly exists to throw the doors wide open.

Apparently, throngs of viewers, in Canada too, were gripped by sordid details surfacing in Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard. Miles of copy have been filed from the Virginia courtroom. But basically, it’s two beautiful people at their naughtiest worst kicking mud at each other, though only Depp has taken the witness stand so far. It’s almost a tragicomedy as Depp tries to rehabilitate his character – not to mention his career – following the 2020 lawsuit he lost in Britain against the Sun newspaper, a tab that had him described as a “wife beater” for assaults on Heard during their short marriage. Heard had also written an opinion piece for the Washington Post about the domestic abuse she had suffered, without ever mentioning Depp by name. This is the source of this ongoing civil action.

I must be a freak because I’m not at all interested in Depp v. Heard and I didn’t watch any of the live streams – tracks that aired on Global TV.

It seems to me that, apart from the salacious voyeurism, the number of viewers – little different from the “clicks” that the media are constantly looking for – there is not the slightest “public interest” dimension in this trial. It’s public lubricity and rubber. And it certainly shouldn’t spark a debate in Canada to loosen the reins on broadcasting.

Should we really imitate the American trend by transforming the courts into reality TV or wall-to-wall Court TV?

Many of the testimonies heard in our courts are appalling. Murder victims, in particular, have no right to privacy – hence the infuriating episode a few years ago in a Toronto courtroom where a piece of flesh from a dead woman was enlarged on a screen while a medical examiner simply speculated whether this poor Eritrean refugee had ever been sexually assaulted. she was killed and her body cut into pieces. These photos, of the woman’s body cut in half, were also shown.

Killer porn, without an ounce of compassion for the victim. She was just a piece of evidence. A dozen teenagers on a school trip to the courthouse had made the mistake of choosing this courtroom. They fled in horror.

Canadian courts, except in rare circumstances, are open to the public. Anyone can sit down and watch. I’d say it’s best to leave the testimony to professionals – journalists – and read about it, filtered for decency, later.

Certainly, there are cases, trials, where it has been of excessive public value to throw hammer after hammer: the trial and conviction of ex-cop Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, for the murder of George Floyd, has been of immense service; seeing how a proceeding is conducted, how traumatic it can be for witnesses to testify, the depth of pain and anger. During the 2020 pandemic, Judge Joseph Di Luca’s lengthy guilty verdict – 63 pages he read in the Oshawa courtroom – of an off-duty Toronto police officer who assaulted a black teenager was streamed live on YouTube.

Yet even in the United States the cameras are not allowed in criminal trials in federal courthouses — only cases judged by the State. For the same reasons, cameras are not allowed in this country: to avoid grandstanding by participants, to maintain decorum, and to protect an accused’s right to a fair trial.

Justice must be seen to be done. But that doesn’t mean turning our courts into “Keeping Up with the Serial Rapist” and “Homicide Tank.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist who covers sports and current affairs for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno