Why We Can't Look Away From True-Life Courtroom Dramas

The trial of Jodi Arias, convicted of murdering her boyfriend, has become a national media sensation. Former Law and Order producer Robert Nathan and authors Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley explore why Americans are so drawn to real-life courtroom dramas.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A jury in Phoenix reconvenes later this week to decide on a sentence for Jodi Arias, convicted last week of the first degree murder of her boyfriend Travis Alexander. Over the past weeks, her trial became a national obsession. Crowds gathered outside the courtroom. The HLN network set up shop on the sidewalk and created a new show called "HLN After Dark" devoted primarily to this one case. Lifetime has a made-for-TV movie already in production.

A brutal crime, a lurid relationship and cameras in the courtroom, the Arias case took its place in a long line of trials of the century, which dates back at least as far the Scopes Monkey Trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping. What's the trial you could not get enough of? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, lessons learned from what happened before and during the attacks in Benghazi. We begin, though, with bestselling author Walter Mosley. His latest book, the Easy Rawlins mystery "Little Green," goes on sale tomorrow, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice of you to be back on the program.

WALTER MOSLEY: Great to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder, is there a trial that you followed closely?

MOSLEY: You know, I actually try my best not to follow trials because there seems to be something a little pornographic and a little un-American about it. I kind of feel that if somebody is, like, being tried for something, that that's - it's not exactly a private thing, but it's a thing between them and the law, and that's the reason we have law, so I don't have to make a decision about it.

CONAN: You don't have - your books are primarily about investigations.

MOSLEY: Yeah, I'm interested in crimes, and I think a lot of people are interested in crimes, and I think that's partially why they're interested in what's going on in the courtroom. But, you know, mine are fiction. I guess all crime is fiction, though. Even these trials are kind of fictionalized. You never really know.

CONAN: You never really know, yet there's, you know, a clear narrative in the courtroom.

MOSLEY: There's a narrative in the courtroom, but it's a conflicting narrative. You have, you know, the defense and the prosecution. You have people saying that they did commit it, and they didn't commit it, the people say they were there, and they weren't there. Then you have these crazy things, like sometimes somebody gets convicted of a crime that - with eyewitnesses, and later on DNA evidence says they couldn't have possibly committed it.

So there's always a reason to wonder. It's not clear - it's clear what we're trying to get to, but it's not clear how we get there.

CONAN: Yet that all seems to make a lot of elements of a pretty interesting drama.

MOSLEY: Oh no absolutely. It's very dramatic. I don't doubt that. I just - I personally just, I feel a little uncomfortable watching it. And also, you know, I get so upset because I know how much money is spent. I mean, there was more money spent on the O.J. Simpson trial than he could have every possibly made in 20 lifetimes.

CONAN: There is also the aspect that at a trial, we're seeing, well obviously the prosecution and the defense attorneys, we're seeing the judge, the jury, but we never see the victim in a murder trial.

MOSLEY: Well sometimes you don't see the victim. Usually you don't see the victim. But the victim is supposedly represented by the prosecution.

CONAN: The people, well, represents the state, but arguing on the victim's behalf, but the victim doesn't become a character in the same way that the defendant does.

MOSLEY: Is that really true? I mean in the trial in Arizona, there's been a lot said about the victim, hasn't there?

CONAN: There has, but he's not there. He's not a presence in the courtroom.

MOSLEY: You know, but that's what's so funny is that there's a lot of this that's fiction. The - she is also fictional in a way. I mean, she's there in the courtroom, and she's kind of represented, but we don't really know. This is what always was so interesting to me. I don't ever really know. Someone said is that person guilty. I don't - I have no idea if they're guilty.

You know, they said they're guilty, they said they're not guilty, you know, and then we have our opinions.

CONAN: And an aspect of the fiction is also the presentation of the defendant, whose image is manipulated in one way or another by her lawyers.

MOSLEY: By her lawyers and by the lawyers against her or him. You know, it's really, it's very upsetting, you know, the, you know, the number of people who get found guilty of things who are not guilty, the number of people who get freed from crimes that you know they committed.

It's - and that's also a big part of the drama and seeking for justice.

CONAN: Joining us now is Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan crime series of book. Her latest, "And When She Was Good," comes out in paperback in June, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She's at our member station in Baltimore, WYPR, and good of you to be back with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

LAURA LIPPMAN: Oh thank you for having me back.

CONAN: And did you follow the Jodi Arias case?

LIPPMAN: This is going to sound unbelievable: I had read the story a couple of weeks, a couple of months ago, it must have been months ago, and then suddenly her name was back everywhere. And I said oh gosh, what is this about. I didn't know until about a week ago, when I had to look back and Google it. And then I said, oh, yeah, that case. There's a reason I wasn't following it.

CONAN: And what was that reason?

LIPPMAN: I find it very uninteresting, and I don't feel that it illuminates anything to me. This is a story about two people, a tragic one for the man who was killed. She is unfathomable to me. In fiction, in both writing and reading, I'm not much interested in sociopaths. It's not for me to say that she is one, but given the variety of stories she told, the extreme violence done in the murder, the burglary that might have been set up in order to make the gun disappear.

This is just, there's nothing there for me, and I'm talking about, as a citizen, this illuminates nothing. And I just don't have the time or patience for it.

CONAN: And if not this case, are there other trials, though, that you have followed?

LIPPMAN: Yes, there are other trials I've followed. You know, the one that immediately comes to mind, and it's so long ago, is obviously I followed - not obviously, but I did follow the O.J. Simpson trial, and I found that interesting because so many things were in play about race, about celebrity, about the times in which we live in.

And I remember back then I did something very odd right before the verdict came back. I walked out of the office, so I didn't know what the verdict was, and I walked the streets of Baltimore, and I tried to figure out by looking at people's faces what had happened. And I couldn't really tell. I don't know why I did that, but it was - I was more curious in the reactions to the verdict.

You know, yeah, there have been trials, but I'm actually more interested in local trials, things that are happening in the places where I live. You know, today, for me, the most important story in the news is a shooting in New Orleans, a city where I've been living half of the year.

And to have 17, or I think at last count it was 19, people shot in a second line on Mother's Day, now to me that's important, that's vital. That affects a community in which I live.

CONAN: And those local stories should stay local except when they're not?

LIPPMAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. I went through the New York Times today, and both the Jodi Arias story and the Cleveland story are already gone from the New York Times. There is nothing to advance them in the national media. You know, I think local stories are immensely important. As a writer, I've always been interested in the stories that people haven't followed relentlessly in the national media.

A lot of the things I write about are based or inspired by real stories, but they're all from what I like to call the pre-CNN era. They're stories that people don't know about, and yet they're stories that I think have larger themes and issues. And because they don't come with all the reality loading them down, there's more room for the writer.

CONAN: Walter Mosley, I think that same kind of category would fit much of your work, as well.

MOSLEY: No, it's true, I'm interested in those stories which you might not hear about, you might not know about, you wouldn't understand. And they're - what's exciting about them is what's internal to the characters, not necessarily something that you'd want to hear about on the news.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. What's the trial that you followed that meant something to you? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Melinda's(ph) on the line with us from Cincinnati.

MELINDA: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead please.

MELINDA: Thank you. It was the Ryan Widmer trial in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was accused of drowning his wife in the bathtub. And he was tried twice and on circumstantial evidence. And it was just scary for me because it was - you know, at the end of the day, I felt like they didn't prove that he had done it, but he was...

CONAN: And how did you follow - was the trial on TV, or were you in the courtroom?

MELINDA: It was - there was a lot of blogging. It was not on television, but there was a lot of blogging, which I did follow, and in the newspaper and, you know, through media because they didn't allow television in the courtroom. But it was fascinating and also, like I said, a little scary that, you know, that the evidence was so circumstantial.

CONAN: Most evidence in most cases is circumstantial. It doesn't mean it isn't - I have - I don't remember the trial in particular.

MOSLEY: But, you know, sometimes you'll have a case, like the case here in New York, where the policeman was blamed for stalking women, and he was going to eat them.

CONAN: Right.

MOSLEY: But he hadn't killed or eaten anyone yet. And I remember, I was reading about that, and I was - you know, because, like, you know, the guy kind of scared me, and what he was thinking, was doing, it scared me, and I thought wow, this is terrible. But on the other hand, I thought, well, but he hasn't done it. He hasn't done it. How can you possibly find somebody guilty for something they haven't done.

I mean, there are things he did do that he was found guilty for, that was found, but the moment where, you know, that sensationalism actually enters into the courtroom, and decisions are being made not on what you did but on what you might have done...

CONAN: Or thought about doing.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, of course a headline like cannibal cop, it's kind of hard to avoid sensationalism.

MOSLEY: It is, but you'd hope that the court and the jury and the judge would find some way to, like, keep that out of the courtroom, you know, out of the decision-making process because, you know, you have a - I mean, it's easy to make somebody look bad.

CONAN: And Laura Lippman, it's interesting our caller was talking about the blogs. How much does media change? I mean, you go back to the Lindberg case all those years ago, that was way before anything more advanced than radio.

LIPPMAN: There's always been sensationalism. That's not new. There have always been trials that have captured people's attention. We had a terrible crime in the Baltimore area over the weekend. A man has been murdered, and the people in custody are his 14-year-old daughter and her slightly older boyfriend. It happened to be someone I went to high school with.

And it led me to remember a trial like that in Texas back in the early '80s, where there were so many older women trying to get to the trial, I was literally pushed off the bench where I was sitting as a reporter covering it.

CONAN: So which trial captured your attention and imagination? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is law - TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. At its height, the "Law & Order" franchise on TV presented three cases a week on three different television series. The cases were often ripped from the headlines, drawing on real-life courtroom drama to feed the narrative, like this scene from "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

DIANE NEAL: (As Casey Novak) Be honest: You were going to shoot him no matter what happened. He could have been on his way to court. You still would have shot him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) No.

NEAL: (As Novak) You weren't blind with rage. You planned the entire thing. He beat you. He humiliated you. You wanted to prove that you were a man. You aren't sorry you shot him, are you? Are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) No. I'm glad he's dead, and I'd do it again.

NEAL: (As Novak) Nothing further.

CONAN: We're talking about trials and our fascination with them with crime writers Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley. Tell us what's the trial you could not look away from, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Joining us now is Robert Nathan, a former writer and producer for the "Law & Order" franchise, also a former show-runner for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Before he made his career in Hollywood, he was the New York bureau chief for NPR. He's been trying to live that down for decades. He joins us now from Monte Carlo. Bob, nice to have you with us.

ROBERT NATHAN: Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And the plotlines ripped from the headlines, were those interesting, or were those constricting?

NATHAN: I think they could be either one, I think, depending on how you handled it. If you simply took a story and retold it, fictionally, although you were adhering to the actual story, it seemed to me kind of a fruitless enterprise. If you took it as a starting point to tell a different kind of story, then it seemed to me to be worth doing, to be worth inventing something new out of the circumstances of life.

I myself tried to do very few of them that had much do with what I had read in the headlines unless it was simply the spark of an idea.

CONAN: And as you looked at the case, were you interested more in the investigations, the tracking down the suspects, or more interested in the courtroom drama?

NATHAN: I'm always interested in why people commit crimes. Those shows are mostly about homicide, occasionally about - I mean "SVU" was certainly often about rape or something other than homicide, but most of the episodes are about someone - open with somebody who's dead. And I'm - what fascinates me is human behavior. Why do people kill people?

It turns out there aren't all that many reasons, and what you're really doing is looking for some essential truth in the human condition each time you tell that kind of story.

CONAN: And the part in the courtroom, obviously there's more latitude in the police procedural. How does the - the courtroom part is so structured.

NATHAN: How can I - we tried very, very hard all the time, despite the fact that of course we're condensing what are often 10- and 15- and 20- and 30-day trials into 22 minutes, we tried very hard not to break the fundamental rules of an American courtroom. So in a way, the fact that they're very structured is good for you because it forces you to tell a story better.

If you could, say, randomly have evidence admitted that in real life would not be admitted, then the courtroom stuff turns into kind of a joke, and it is just entertainment without anything interesting behind it. If you, however, play by the rules and say that evidence can't be committed - admitted, how does the justice system really work, or not work as the case may be.

So the courtroom stuff is just as challenging, just in a different way.

CONAN: It's interesting, the old Perry Mason might fit your category. I was astonished, I worked out a rule of thumb: The person who did it was the character with the fewest lines in the first half-hour.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: If the elevator operator said going up, he did it.

(LAUGHTER)

NATHAN: We tried very hard not - I think the best kinds of storytelling on that show were the ones that were circular and where you could see four or five people and meet them all, and not have any idea who committed the crime. The more interesting part for me in the departure from Perry Mason was the very first season of "Law & Order," when we started doing something that had never been done on television before, which is the prosecution lost.

So now you have a new reason for the audience to come, not just to work out the mystery of the, kind of, Agatha Christie part of it and the Shakespearian drama part of somebody's motives, but do the good guys, theoretically good guys, win or lose. And what we said in the first season was pretty much accurate to the real life of Morgenthau's office in New York, which is, they only take capital cases to trial they think they can win, obviously, and they lose about 25 to 30 percent of them.

So we had him - people were kind of shocked and horrified that he did, but we have Moriarty, playing Stone, lose about 30 percent of them.

CONAN: I wonder how much - Laura Lippman, do you read Walter Mosley's books? Did you watch "Law & Order"?

LIPPMAN: I definitely have read Walter Mosley's books, and I have just come from my parents' home in Delaware, where "Law & Order" is pretty much on whenever the TV is on, and that's about 18 hours a day.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPPMAN: I love "Law & Order." I love Walter Mosley's books, and I love "Law & Order." It is a formula that works. It is an immensely satisfying television show. You know, genre fiction has always counted on a certain comfort in the form, which is that an answer will be provided, not necessarily the answer you want, and it won't necessarily be all tied up with a ribbon.

I would argue that in crime fiction, if everything is happy and nice at the end, there's something wrong with the book. I mean, terrible things have happened. People have been changed. Life will not be the same as it was. But "Law & Order" is absolutely addictive. And when I'm, you know, at my parents' house, I am very happy to settle in for the never-ending flow of it.

CONAN: Then there's the question of, Walter Mosley, how many more lessons about life can Easy Rawlins possibly learn.

MOSLEY: Well, you know, before I answer that question, I just want to say - because I've been thinking about why I'm, like, what interests me about crime and about, you know, sensational courtroom trials. Years and years ago, I was walking down the street, and I was wearing a brown hat, and I had a brown pair of pants, and I had a yellow plastic bag with some tapes in it. And the police stopped me.

And they stopped me in a funny way. I was walking forward, and a policeman was standing in front of me, and I thought he was just standing there by mistake. So I turned to my left, and there was a policeman there, and I turned to my right, and there was a policeman there, and then I turned around, and there was a policeman there. And they were on all four sides of me.

And they said: We aren't infringing on your constitutional rights. We are just impeding your progress. A jewelry store was just robbed by a man with a brown hat, and he escaped with the jewels in a yellow bag. And I went wow, you know, that wasn't me. And they took my bag, and they looked, and they saw what was in it, and they went through my pockets.

But they had a woman who worked in the jewelry store come, and they drove her, I didn't really know at the time, and she looked at me from the side. And this woman happened to be the wife of a police captain, which made her see things in a different way. And she looked at me, and she said no, that's not him. And they let me go.

But, you know, if she said yes, that's him, I could be in prison today, all these many years later. And I know that. And I know how easily that can happen. And so - and so sometimes I get drawn into trials when it's that situation, somebody is, you know, ID'd, but we know that, you know, the IDs don't work usually, that people don't really see what they're seeing there, actually they see what they're shown later, or maybe they see something that they didn't - you know, that didn't happen.

So I'm very interested in that element of the so-called justice system.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to John(ph), and John's on the line with us from Jackson in Wyoming.

JOHN: Hey, good morning. I years ago lived near Boise, Idaho, when Gerry Spence defended one of the Waco Branch Davidian people against the government - I don't know if it was the ATF, some - anyway, it turned into kind of the trial of the decade there. And to be honest, I can no longer remember who the defendant was.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: But Gerry Spence was (unintelligible), and we now live in Jackson. He and his family still have a law firm here. He's still a very charismatic guy. But that's the trial I kind of remember. In fact I went and watched briefly. There was a bit of standing-room-only line every day, and...

CONAN: Yeah, I got to cover the ABSCAM trial in New York, and there were any number of spectacular lawyers in that case. Bob Nathan, the celebrity lawyer certainly figured prominently in "Law & Order."

NATHAN: In some stories, yes, and if they were connected at all to real life, certainly celebrity lawyers were either parodied or re-created. I think...

CONAN: Did you ever have one in buckskin?

(LAUGHTER)

NATHAN: It's very funny he should mention Gerry. I actually worked on a movie about a moment in Gerry's life, and I said something about the buckskin, and he said oh, you mean the uniform?

(LAUGHTER)

NATHAN: I said, you know you're playing a role when you wear it then. He said, well, of course, I am. He said, yes, it's part of what I - he said, I don't wear it in a courtroom. I wear a suit in a courtroom, although he was very interesting in his choice of suits.

He said he always chose a suit off the rack because he wanted the other lawyers to look richer than he did, because then the jury would be more sympathetic to him. He's a very, very shrewd guy about how to make the jury pay attention, and I think you can learn a lot - and I certainly did - from him. And I've always used it since then, in anything I've written.

He's a consummate performer in a courtroom, and he knows that it's a performance. He's not - as do any good lawyer. There are only two things going on in front of a jury. I'm going to tell you a story, and you're going to believe mine. And he is going to tell you a story, or she's going to tell you a story, and you're going to believe hers.

Whichever one you choose, whatever it be, the defendant will be guilty or innocent whosever story you decide is the truth. So it's all a form of performance. It's all a form of narrative. The idea that it's somehow a search for the truth is a wonderful idea. It just isn't true.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the phone call.

MOSLEY: It's not completely true. It's partially true.

NATHAN: Partly true.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NATHAN: In an ideal world, a trial is a search for the truth, and a really fine prosecutor is interested in the truth. I've grown fairly cynical because I've watched prosecutors do things that I'm fully aware are not in pursuit of the truth.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NATHAN: They're in pursuit of a victory.

MOSLEY: But then you have trials like the trial in Chicago when the ACLU protected the rights of the Nazi party to have a public march. There are times when you have trials, public trials, very, you know, visible public trials, which are really about who we are as a people.

CONAN: Is there a distinction between a political trial like that and a criminal one? I mean, sometimes they're the same.

MOSLEY: Well, there is, as far as the law is concerned, is a - you know, there's a law. It's in question, and the judge and the jury have to come to a decision based on the arguments brought in front of them. And, you know, when it - there are trials like that which are terribly interesting and terribly important.

You know, here, I'm a black man in America saying, look, if we start saying that the Nazis can't march, the next thing I know - you know, because I hate them - but the next thing I know is I won't be able to march. And that is a trial that's very important to me. And, you know, I think in the best "Law & Order" series, they brought up things like that where they - they're actually saying what's right, what's right for America.

NATHAN: I actually had Moriarty - well, actually, I didn't have Moriarty do it. I wrote a speech for Moriarty, a closing speech. He actually rewrote it. He called me up 11 o'clock, and I said, you've run away from the truth of your own material, and you're afraid to confront this. And the speech he gave is the one you just said.

He said in the jury: You may want to find these guys innocent, because although you know they're guilty, you don't like the people that they've killed, so you're going to think it's OK. Just remember, if you're sitting there someday, that's not the way you will want people to decide, because you're black or white or Catholic or Jewish or gay or anything.

And he went through the whole thing, that sort of World War II speech about they came from them, and I didn't say anything, and they came for them, I didn't say anything.

LIPPMAN: Right.

NATHAN: And Moriarty wrote it so brilliantly that I basically used his version instead of mine. And that is the moment when you really do see the power of a lawyer explaining the meaning of society to a jury and how important it is that they're aware of what they're doing. Yes, just because you're sympathetic to the bad guys doesn't mean that somehow you won't be in the same place someday, and you will want somebody else to be sympathetic to the bad guys.

MOSLEY: Or because you hate the bad guys.

NATHAN: Right.

MOSLEY: And - but still they have rights just like everybody else, and we have to - in order to be in America, you have to protect everybody's rights.

CONAN: That is Walter Mosley, the best-selling author. His latest, "Easy Rawlins Mystery: Little Green," goes on sale tomorrow. Also with us Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan series, among other books. "And When She Was Good" comes out in paperback in June. You just also heard Robert Nathan, former writer/producer for the "Law & Order" franchise, also a former show runner for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." He's currently promoting "Lucky Bastard," a film he directed and produced. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Ed(ph), Ed on the line with us from Phoenix.

ED: Oh, hi. It's fascinating topic. I just wanted to put in my two bits. When I was a young man back in - 19 or 20 years old, I went to the Patty Hearst trial and stood in line there, and my primary motive was actually twofold. I wanted to see F. Lee Bailey in action. He's a lawyer of some notoriety. And then the other issue was how would the justice system work in her case?

And it kind of validated what I was thinking at that young age, that if you have good representation, you can pretty much get what you were looking for. And the - I think Patty Hearst - if memory serves me, I don't think she served much time, but your - maybe your panel or somebody could...

LIPPMAN: She was convicted.

CONAN: She was convicted and did serve some time. I'm not quite - I don't - can we find out how much?

LIPPMAN: John Waters, the Baltimore film director is someone else who also attended that trial every day, and he and Hearst became quite good friends as a result. You know, now that's the case where I know it makes people very uncomfortable, and it's something I've been worried about since the news broke out of Cleveland, which is - Stockholm syndrome is not very well understood. I would say some people just can't really wrap their minds around it, and will put the Hearst case...

CONAN: That's where the victim forms a bond with the - his or her captors, yeah.

LIPPMAN: Yeah. And they do what they have to do to survive. And I've been sort of waiting for some shoes to drop, more than one, in Cleveland. Because I've seen it before where we see people who have been held captive. And it's really hard for some people to understand how it could happen, and they begin to think, well, you know, the person really didn't want to go for some reason. And this was - this happened in a case several years ago with - in the Midwest - where a man kidnapped one small boy, kept him for several years, sexually abused him. And when that boy was a teenager he brought home another captive. And it was then that his first captive found the resilience to leave, to run away, to escape and to save the second child. And I saw Bill O'Riley on TV saying oh I don't know. I don't think you could hold a 14-year-old boy in your home if you didn't want to be there. It looked like he was having fun to me. He was eating pizza and he didn't have to go to school.

Those are paraphrases but weren't far from what was said. And there are these immensely complicated issues that come up in trials, Stockholm Syndrome. And I think we have very little patience where the insanity play in our culture. And if you look at the trial of Andrea Yates, the mother in Texas who was accused of killing five of her children, you'd see that there - it took two trials before she actually got justice.

CONAN: By the way, Patty Hearst is sentenced to 35 years that was commuted to seven and then it turned out she served 22 months.

MOSLEY: You know, I completely agree with Laura is saying. Though, I think that the caller was saying that if you're come from a wealthy family with a lot of power, you're going to get a better shape.

CONAN: Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman and Robert Nathan. NPR News.

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