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CLARENCE PAGE: “Anyone who loves the law and loves sausage,” Otto von Bismarck once said, “should never watch either of them being made.” Perhaps not, but we Americans do love to watch the law being enforced.
ATTORNEY: Your honor, the testimony is going to show that…
CLARENCE PAGE: We can’t seem to get enough of watching trials on TV or following them in print. We watch the big trials with big stars like O.J. and Robert Blake. We watch little trials with big stars, like Winona Ryder or Eminem. We watch little trials that make big stars out of Judge Judy, or Judge Joe Brown, or Judge Greg Mathis, or Judge Mills Lane, or Judge Mablean Ephraim. She’s on the latest incarnation of “Divorce Court,” the third version of that little mcnugget of justice since the 1950s. Twenty-four hours a day, we have Court TV, a channel devoted to, well, courts, and talk about courts, trials, and crimes. And why not? Trials are riveting.
Shakespeare knew that. Can’t you just see him, hunched over his script for “The Merchant of Venice,” saying to himself, “how am I going to resolve this? I’ve got it: A climax in a courtroom. A scoundrel. Young lovers. A pound of flesh. The rubes will love it. Major box office.” Yes, trials make riveting drama because they offer the promise of resolutions– that no matter how perplexing this story may be, a decision is coming. We are about to learn something.
SPOKESPERSON: We the jury find the defendant, Robert Durst, not guilty.
CLARENCE PAGE: The verdict is not the only draw. Law Professor Paul Butler of George Washington University observes that we want to see the trial as much as we want to here the verdict. In the Washington Post he wrote, “trials are secular rituals through which we hope the mysteries of evil will be explained.”
Indeed, we knew before the trial that Andrea Yates, for example, was guilty of killing her five children. She confessed to that much. Yet many of us watched her trial because we wanted to know, we needed to know that she was indeed insane. We needed to know how and why someone could become so untethered from the values that govern the rest of us. Another George Washington law professor, Jonathan Turley, agrees.
He’s been studying the high- profile trials of the past century, and our public appetite for meaning. But that appetite goes unsatisfied, he says, in trials like those of East Coast sniper suspects John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, or Scott Petersen, the California man accused of killing his wife, Lacey, and her unborn child. When the defendants do not confess, or even testify, the trials tell us a lot about what they allegedly did, but not necessarily much about the why.
ATTORNEY: Did you ever ascertain the identification of the child laying in the road?
MAN: Yes, I did.
ATTORNEY: Who was that?
CLARENCE PAGE: All we have left then is stories, two competing versions of what happened, and judge and jury to decide which one reflects the truth, or at least comes closest to the truth. A Supreme Court Justice once said that he could not define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Justice itself is sort of like that. We can’t always define it, but we hope that we will see it. I’m Clarence Page.