Media and the Law (USA): Thesis Extract III
(Find part one here, and part two here. This time I looked at 3 famous American cases - I included all 3 this time. Enjoy!)
- O. J. Simpson Trial: People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson
On October 3, 1995 the world held their breath as the jury delivered the verdict for famous football star turned accused murderer, for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Orenthal James Simpson was pronounced ‘not-guilty’ after a sensational, televised trial that lasted nearly 8 months, presided over by Judge Lance Ito. Described as the most publicized trial in American history# – The O.J Simpson trial as it is widely known defined a generation and became a cornerstone about whether justice can be purchased for a price, and the role race plays. There wasn’t a media outlet worth their salt that didn’t give priority to the case – both Newsweek and Time dedicated covers to the trails – in different ways, the darkened Time cover causing outrage eventually prompting the magazine to issue an apology#
(The Time and Newsweek covers)
In a dramatic trial, most people believed at the start that without a doubt the guilty verdict was done and dusted – but Simpson’s high-profile legal team who managed to plan reasonable doubt in the jurors mind about the miss-handling of the DNA evidence# (the strongest evidence against Simpson) and alleged misconduct by the L.A. Police Department. It was also a matter of interest to many that national surveys showed the difference between ‘black’ and ‘white’ opinions#, causing many to realize that the race issue was very much alive in ‘90’s. This was a key argument used by the defense, with Simpson’s lawyer calling Fuhrman the detective in the case, “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America's worst nightmare and the personification of evil#”. Later in 1997 he was found liable in the civil court for having caused the victims wrongful deaths and this verdict was upheld in 2008.
The public outcry after the not-guilty verdict was gleefully recorded by the media – many of whom knew that the chances of another case of this magnitude and spice taking place in their lifetime were slim. Starting with the live televised car chase before Simpson’s arrest – the case was a media circus from the very beginning. The public were hooked – and Simpson’s celebrity status only fueled the media more. Larry King quipped, “If we had God booked and O.J. was available, we'd move God"#. While it is undeniable that Simpson’s fame as a football star was the reason for the initial interest in the case, it is undeniable that the media played on the issues of race and purchase of justice that really caused the sensation to explode out of bounds. And as a Harvard law professor pointed out, “This case was a watershed case in an important respect: It placed the issue of race and justice squarely before the American public, and we had to confront the ugly underbelly of the criminal justice system”#.
- Casey Anthony Trial: State of Florida vs. Casey Marie Anthony
The woman who was called “one of the most hated women in America”# starred in what Times Magazine called ‘the social media trial of the decade”# – the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her two year old. The first case of magnitude to play out on the background of social media as a media outlet – it has now become a landmark case for describing trial by media and the public. Anthony’s mother reported her granddaughter missing after 31 days – and in six months the decomposed, skeletal remains of the murdered child were discovered by investigators. Anthony was then arrested for first-degree murder and “The sheer horror at the act — and the idea that a mother committed it — catapulted the case from local live-at-5 sideshow to tabloid sensation”#. Unlike in the case of Simpson – Anthony became a celebrity after the extensive media attention surrounding her trial.
In 2011 when the case when to trial – it seemed that overnight Facebook pages both condemning Anthony and ‘in memory’ of the victim appeared and Twitter accounts like CaseyJunky and OSCaseyAnthony (managed by the Orlando Sentinel)added followers at a rate of hundreds per day. The most reliable tweeting came from “NinthCircuitFL - the feed managed by the 9th Judicial Circuit Court, which has some 400 reporter-blogger followers”#. Many compared it to the O.J. Simpson trial when the ‘not guilty’ verdict was given – both trails have been seen a murders getting away. A picture of a tweet from a parody account of O.J. Simpson is shown below which sums up how most people felt about the verdicts.
(The Tweet from the Simpson parody account)
The controversial pictures of Anthony partying became internet memes, and the usage of social media by both celebrities and the public was the ‘go-to’ point for expression of opinions. The hash tag #notguilty trended world wide – and perhaps the most controversial tweet came from Kim Kardashian who tweeted, “WHAT!!!!???!!!! CASEY ANTHONY FOUND NOT GUILTY!!!! I am speechless!!!” – ironically in the opinion of many since her father Robert Kardashian, was one of the attorneys on OJ Simpsons legal defense team#. As Time magazine pointed out, “If it's true that Facebook and Twitter provide forums for a rich abundance of perspectives, the Casey Anthony trial shows they can also be arenas for mass, lip-licking bloodlust”#. Rapidly a picture of Anthony was built up by various media outlet sources, “She’s being portrayed as a party girl who chafed at motherhood, especially when she couldn’t find a babysitter. Her toddler was a buzz kill — and so she was killed”#.
Journalists have analyzed the hype surrounding the trial in an attempt to understand why the case enthralled the American public. Rochman hits the nail on the head when she says, “What fascinates is how the case has upended family allegiances. It’s Anthony’s own mother, Cindy, who first fingered Anthony as a possible suspect; Cindy was the one who alerted police that Caylee was missing and complained that Anthony’s car smelled like human remains”#. Her celebrity status was further compounded by the production of an E! Hollywood Story# and to this day Anthony has become a quip used by internet users, as in, “Leave me alone or I’ll Casey Anthony your kids”.
- The Steubenville High School Rape:
In 2013, the town of Steubenville in Ohio was thrust into the glare of the media spotlight when two football players were convicted of the rape of a 16 year old girl – details of which unfolded via social media#. Many were left sickened as they realized the defendants had shared pictures via Twitter, Instagram and YouTube (See image below) as the incident took place. The judge who pronounced them guilty pointed out that the case was “a cautionary lesson in how teenagers conduct themselves when alcohol is present and in ‘how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today’#”. A crime blogger is widely credited with helping to bring the case to national attention as well as its documentation online#.
Perhaps the case and trial itself lacked the ‘media-circus’ element that defined the cases of Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson – but it prompted widespread media debate about ‘slut-shaming’, the handling of rape cases by the media and the question of where the line should be drawn in social media expressions. While the criminal proceedings of the case are finished with Judge Thomas Lipps pronouncing a ‘guilty’ verdict and sentencing the two defendants (both minors at the time of the crime) facing the possibility of being in detention until the age of 21#; but the decision of the civil trials are yet to happen – making this case very much alive.
What really draws ones attention about this case in terms of media was the usage of Internet media outlets to critique the portrayal of the case in more tradition media forums such as television and print, as well as other opinions expressed via the internet. It raised questions about an interesting dynamic between the two outlets – and the wealth of information and expression that is afforded to the public today – at what point does the public’s ability to freely express their opinion without fear become too much? Fury exploded over CNN’s alleged sympathetic angle towards the defendants when they reported the story# and an on-line petition was created with over 215,000 people demanding they apologize on-air#. Bloggers focused on the many social media users who expressed anger over the verdict with, with statements like “So these kids life is going to be ruined because some sloppy s*** got drunk at a party?#” and bemoaned the ‘victim-blaming’ culture that was loudly expressed#. As one journalist asked, “Who's watching the online bullies, and isn't that crossing some kind of line?#”