In Sanford, Florida, the defense has rested in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. In Boston, Dzhokar Tsarnaev appeared in court yesterday to plead not guilty to 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombing. In Texas, Major Nidal Hassan is representing himself in trying to select a jury of Army officers to hear the evidence in his trial for the shooting rampage that killed more than a dozen people at Fort Hood in 2009.
The media loves these trials — which is why, at any given point in time, there’s likely to be a criminal trial in the news in America. O.J. Simpson. The officers involved in the Rodney King incident. Jean Harris. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Whenever a crime attracts the attention of the country, the trial allows the media and the public to revel in their fascination with the case and the evidence, the witnesses and the lawyers. Reporters and commentators can breathlessly describe the evidence presented, critique the conduct of the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney, and express their opinions on whether conviction or acquittal is likely. And when the case has an overlay of race, or class, or religion, the stakes are heightened and there is even greater opportunity for commentary about the broad social lessons that supposedly should be drawn from the trial and the verdict.
The fact that there is almost always a criminal trial in the news suggests that none of these cases involve “the crime of the century” — and, in reality, they don’t. Every day, in every corner of America, judges, lawyers, and juries are doing their jobs to resolve criminal charges. The trials in those little-covered cases aren’t materially different from those that command the headlines; they also involve disputed evidence, contested rulings by the court, compelling testimony, and distraught families. The evidence is presented, the jury is instructed, deliberates, and announces its verdict. If you know anyone who has ever served on a jury in a criminal trial, they’ll likely tell you that they and their fellow jurors took their jobs seriously and did their very best to fairly evaluate the evidence they heard. The vast majority of the time their verdict is accepted without any outcry or incident, and the system moves forward.
The American criminal justice system is a transparent one. Criminal trials are open to the media and the public precisely so citizens can see how the justice system works — and it does work. The “show trials” get the news coverage and may provoke the heated emotions and charged responses to jury verdicts, but we shouldn’t forget that they just represent the tiny tip of a very large iceberg.