TOPICS > Politics

Judging the System

June 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, how this trial looked to our regional commentators and to Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: With us tonight are our five regulars: Lee Cullum of the “Dallas Morning News;” Mike Barnicle of the “Boston Globe;” Patrick McGuigan of the “Daily Oklahoman;” Cynthia Tucker of the “Atlanta Constitution;” and Bob Kittle of the “San Diego Union Tribune.” Bob Kittle, you heard this discussion. What do you think about the restoration of faith in the judicial system? Did this trial, in your view, produce that?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Oh, I think it did to a very large degree. I mean, it’s certainly true that the O. J. Simpson case was an anomaly in the American judicial system, but it was the case that loomed so large in the public’s mind that it did take on for them what the judicial system was. And because I think so many people–a real majority of Americans–felt that the O. J. Simpson case was a miscarriage of justice there was, indeed, a lack of faith in the judicial system. And I think the verdict in the–in the McVeigh case yesterday will go a long way toward restoring the people’s confidence that the jury system–while it isn’t perfect–by and large, on a day to day basis does a good job and, in fact, can master a large, high profile, highly politicized case such as this, and come out with a verdict that seems fair.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Cynthia Tucker?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Charlayne, I’m not sure I would draw such sweeping conclusions from this case in part because the case wasn’t televised. It was not the national preoccupation, as the O. J. Simpson trial was for many, many months, and I have seen no evidence that large numbers of Georgians were paying that much attention. I think that the Timothy McVeigh case was one of those very peculiar cases where the decision that most Americans think was a fair and just one, which was a “guilty” verdict, didn’t have much effect at all, but an acquittal would have left us very disconcerted and complaining that there was something very much wrong with the American justice system, but a “guilty” verdict didn’t have the ability to produce in us any sense of satisfaction or of fairness in the American justice system.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think about that, Mike Barnicle? Did it restore your faith in the system?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, actually, I’ve always had faith in the system. I was, though, deeply relieved to hear that the media made Peter Neufeld and the O. J. Simpson team react the way they did. And I was deeply relieved to hear that. But I think with this verdict–I think a lot of people view this as just one case. They’re relieved, because this is a deeply evil act that the defendant was found guilty, but I think people look at it as an individual case and not much more–a horrendous case but an individual case.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But do you think about that, Patrick McGuigan? Did it restore the faith in the system, or are people looking at it just as one case from which you cannot generalize?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, I think people here are certainly very gratified by the verdict. Overwhelmingly, there’s a sense that justice has been achieved in this case. I’m–I haven’t had a chance really to focus on some of these larger issues, but I do find the discussion fascinating, and I probably follow a little closer to Dr. Abramson than anyone. We might disagree on some other issues, but I think his observations were pretty much on point. As much as I’m a critic in my writing of television I don’t think television, per se, television in the courtroom, is the culprit in some of these recent cases. I think the behavior of people in front of the cameras is the culprit. In this case, whether or not it has been televised, the lynchpin was that Judge Matsch kept control of what was presented. He kept control of the competing attorneys, and that kept the case focused on the issue at hand. And that’s why it unfolded in an orderly way. I’m not quite as sanguine as Mr. Cooper about how the system operates on a day-to-day basis, but I think it’s fair to say that the Simpson case was an aberration.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s your take on it, Lee Cullum, in terms of just restoring the faith in the judicial system?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Charlayne, I think it did restore faith in the judicial system. I think that it was an important case. I think it was very closely watched. Certainly it was closely watched down here. I am told yesterday, for example, in a Dallas supermarket a man working in the produce department came rushing out from behind the scenes to announce the verdict to everybody in the store in a loud voice. And there was a great response. I think that the dignified way in which the case was conducted mattered a great deal. I think the press was–and the media were forced into a position of restraint, and that was a great help also. I do not think that the successful outcome of this case in terms of the decorum of it means that we should install cameras next time. I think it works far, far better when there’s an atmosphere of restraint, and that is far more possible without the glare of cameras and lights.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think about that, Bob Kittle, the–the restraint imposed on the media and the cameras and so on?

ROBERT KITTLE: It’s an interesting question. I don’t think the mere presence of cameras in the courtroom changes the behavior of the individuals in the courtroom a great deal. I think Judge Ito would have been the kind of showboat that he was. I think the defense attorneys, the prosecution in the O. J. Simpson case, for example, they would have performed at about the same level, with or without the cameras. The cameras certainly brought it home more and perhaps magnified it in that sense. But I don’t think we can conclude that the problem is the television camera. And I think, if anything, we can look to the performance of Judge Matsch, as Lee Cullum pointed out. He got the tight control over all of the players in this case. He did the judicial system a great favor, and I think if we want to solve the problem of a lack of decorum in the courtroom, which is what really matters, we have to look to the referee, who is the judge, and who has the power to keep things under control.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what about Bob Abramson–I mean, Mr. Abramson’s point, that sexual–when you have the combination of sexual violence, TV, race, all of those things taken together, that’s when you get the real problem, and it’s going to happen again?

ROBERT KITTLE: I think he’s got a good point there, and there may be narrow cases where the cameras are better left out under those narrow circumstances. I think it’s best if we make decisions about cameras in the courtroom on a case by case basis. Yes. There was a huge difference here. The O. J. Simpson case had, of course, race as its defining element, and overlaying on that, of course, was the issue of sex and celebrity and everything else. So it was a very volatile case from the beginning.


ROBERT KITTLE: My point is we should make these–judges should make these decisions on whether to allow the cameras in the courtroom on a case-by-case basis.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Cynthia Tucker, the combination of sexual violence, TV, race together would have made for a different situation, right?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I expect that that’s true, Charlayne. I do find it a very interesting proposition to hear all the attorneys suggesting earlier that judges and lawyers simply cannot behave themselves once cameras appear in the courtroom and once the press is there, allowed to do its job very freely. If that is, in fact, true, it is very troubling. I think if every single trial in America were televised and the public paid a lot more attention to most of those trials, I think that they would see the wide range of experiences often in the criminal justice system day in and day out. Most trials that do not have sex, race, celebrity, and money, and the O. J. Simpson case has all of those very dynamic elements–most trials are pretty boring, pretty commonplace. And what we see, in fact, is that most criminal defendants, unlike O. J., who’s a very–who was at least a very wealthy man–most of them are poor. And many of these cases are settled very quickly and far more defendants are shuttled off to prison than the American public seems ready to believe.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mike Barnicle, what about the proposition that the public really does need to–has a right to know what’s–has a right to see justice being carried out?

MIKE BARNICLE: What about reading about justice? I mean, I think there’s a huge difference between televised trials and publicized trials. I don’t think the American news media does its job well enough in terms of covering the day-to-day events in courtrooms throughout this country. Justice works best when it is anonymous, when the facts are presented in a clear, dispassionate way anonymously to a jury, who then makes up his mind whether a defendant is guilty or innocent. Newspapers can write about this every single day. If newspapers covered the justice system in America the way we cover Major League baseball, people would be shocked at the shortcomings of the justice system, as well as thrilled with its magnificence. It happens every single day throughout this country. But people don’t know about it because we seem not to care about it–only in the cases of a Timothy McVeigh or an O. J. Simpson do we step up to the plate and do our jobs.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Pat McGuigan, where do you come down on this?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, some really great observations by everybody so far. I guess the thing I’d say about, you know, this question of race and of gender. I look at it a little differently. To me, those aspects were also in this case because all kinds of people, all kinds of background, all kinds of beliefs were in that building when it was destroyed. And it was a tribute to their memory that the system mustered itself to have the strength to conduct the proceedings in the way that I think we’d like to see most criminal proceedings conducted, and there are probably more conducted this way than we’ve been giving the system credit for.


PATRICK McGUIGAN: That’s where Mike’s last observation is very apt.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. So if the verdict had been “not guilty,” would it have had the same–gotten the same reaction and had the same restorative effect?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: I don’t know. I think it would have been a really cataclysmic shock in this community if Mr. McVeigh had been acquitted. The evidence was truly overwhelming. That doesn’t mean there’s unanswered questions.


PATRICK McGUIGAN: And really that’s what Jones primarily accomplished in some of his presentations, was pointing out things that are like dangling participles, just aspects of the case that can’t yet be brought to closure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lee Cullum–excuse me–

PATRICK McGUIGAN: But that doesn’t mean that Timothy McVeigh was anything other than guilty.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lee Cullum, do you agree with that, that if the verdict had been “not guilty,” there would have been questions lingering about the justice system?

LEE CULLUM: Oh, absolutely. I think had he been found “not guilty,” it would have been an excruciating denial of closure and a disturbing denial of justice in the eyes of many people. I want to add that the operative right in a criminal justice trial is the right of the accused to a fair trial. It’s not the right of the public to see it on television. And, incidentally, the public is not denied news of the trial. The public is not denied entry to the courtroom. Whoever wants to fly to Denver to the sentencing hearing that starts tomorrow is welcome to go.


LEE CULLUM: But the right of the accused is the operative right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, Bob Kittle, is–is the closure now drawn on this? Is the trial behind us, just very briefly?

ROBERT KITTLE: I think so. And I think that’s very significant, because what was so shocking about this case is that this kind of political terrorism is relatively rare, fortunately, in the American experience.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Briefly, Cynthia Tucker, do you think it’s all behind us now, closure?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think it’s actually behind us too quickly, Charlayne. I think that there are lessons we need to draw about the potential for domestic terrorism in this country we haven’t yet begun to focus on.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. Mike Barnicle, is it behind us?

MIKE BARNICLE: I think closure is an overworked word. It might be there for us but not for anyone who lost anyone in Oklahoma City.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Pat McGuigan, behind us?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Mike’s absolutely right. This will be a part of our life here, I guess, from now on.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lee Cullum, behind us?

LEE CULLUM: No, it’s not behind us. I understand there are to be state charges brought, so it’s not over.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you all for joining us.