[Reader’s Note: Trials have always fascinated me. I have written a couple of books on the subject and, from time to time, I’ll write a column or two about some of the more interesting in history such as the Salem Witch trials, the trial of Lizzie Borden, and the Scopes Monkey trial. Today’s column is sort of an overview.]
It is the stuff of news. High drama. Life and death. That rare moment when justice, or a reasonable facsimile, is meted out. And what offers up more high drama, or melodrama, than a highly publicized, juicy “whodunit”?
Most news events live short life spans. They happen; they are reported; they are quickly forgotten. A trial, however, often is a lingering, living thing that builds in tension. It is, every once in a long while, a modern Shakespearean drama.
Unlike life with all its shades of grey, a trial is black or white, someone is guilty or innocent; there is crime, there is justice, there is punishment.
Perhaps it is that simplicity most of us find so compelling, and perhaps that is the reason trials so often grip our attention. We gravitate to the natural drama of a trial, and some have significance that far exceeds our understanding. The trial of a carpenter’s son, for example, still holds the world’s attention after 2,000 years.
Perhaps the intoxicating mystery of a trial is that elusive concept called justice. Laws differ by country and by tradition, but justice is the common goal.
From the Salem witch trials in 1692 to the spectacular trials of the century that come along every five years or so, America has defined itself through its search for justice. It is what we blindly stumble after in life and what we hope to attain in court. It may be wishful thinking, of course, to believe that we can bottle and dispense in a courtroom what we can hardly identify in life, but God bless us, we try.
It is a trial with no significance, one that never happened, that is partly responsible for my interest in trials. It is the by-product of a Jack Lemmon movie titled “How to Murder Your Wife.”
Although the film costarred one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, Virna Lisi, the real star of the movie and the moving force behind this academic tome is the “Globbida Globbida machine” most of us know simply as a cement mixer. It is allegedly the Globbida Globbida machine that eats Lemmon’s wife, the voluptuous Ms. Lisi, after Lemmon allegedly throws her into the bowels of that evil machine.
Lemmon is brought to trial, and the evidence piles up against him. Just as his bleak plight appears hopeless, Lemmon affects a new defense strategy. In a shocking twist, he admits to the murder, but claims that murdering one’s wife is justifiable homicide.
Upon hearing this moving defense, the all-male jury unanimously shouts “not guilty” before showing unrestrained exuberance with its opinion by carrying the victorious Lemmon out of the courtroom on its collective shoulders.
Although no drama catches the interest of the American public more than a spectacular trial, rarely does the crime embody the natural suspense of the trial that follows.
The crime is reported; it is big news, but then it quickly diminishes in news value. But the trial, particularly in recent years, lingers, and drama builds. It is a play whose actors are real, whose stage is a courtroom, whose audience is a jury.
The true American theater is the courtroom. How the public views that stage is often left to the media.
The jury renders a judgment, but public opinion often determines the final verdict in terms of the lasting historical significance of the crime, the trial, and the accused. This was true when the printer, John Peter Zenger, defended his right to free speech in 1735, and it has proven true for every “trial of the century” since. The reason is relatively simple: Trials are media events and media coverage impacts their importance.
This is not to say that trials have no lasting significance beyond how the public perceives them. A trial can have long-reaching significance beyond what the media write and beyond what the public thinks.
It can help write the Constitution (the John Peter Zenger trial, 1735), or rewrite it (the Dred Scott trial, 1856); it can help end a war (the William Calley trial, 1989); it can revamp institutions (The Sioux Indian uprisings and trials, 1862); it can mold public opinion (The Matthew Shepard Trial, 1999); it can frustrate large sections of the public (The O.J. Simpson Trial, 1995). Some trials, primarily because of the accompanying media coverage, have brought about these and similar results.
Of course, few trials ended as happily as did Jack Lemmon’s. So for that I say thanks to Jack, to Virna, and, most important of all, to the Globbida Globbida machine.