A Trial Made For Prime Time

The trial of George Zimmerman has not only made news; it has also made for must-see TV. These days, cameras inside the courtroom routinely make stars out judges, lawyers and witnesses. But is that a good thing? Host Jacki Lyden talks to the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, Marcia Clark, about cameras in the courtroom.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And as Jim just mentioned, the issues at play in the Zimmerman trial - guns, race and even social class - almost compel us to watch.

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: The trial of George Zimmerman, another dramatic day in court...

BRIAN WILLIAMS: It's become such a closely watched, very highly charged court trial...

LYDEN: The jury is now deciding the fate of Zimmerman, who's on trial for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Throughout, cameras in the courtroom have turned the trial into something of a must-see event for daytime TV. But is this a good thing?

For some insight on how the spotlight changes things in the courtroom, we're joined by Marcia Clark. She knows a thing or two about the so-called trials of the century. She was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Marcia Clark is an author now, and she joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

MARCIA CLARK: Good afternoon, Jacki. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Thanks for coming in. So Marcia, the judges decide whether or not to allow cameras in their courtrooms. When you first heard that the O.J. Simpson trial was going to be televised, were you pleased, or were you concerned?

CLARK: Concerned - we couldn't oppose it. It's the judge's determination; it's his decision to make. And it's also the extension of the right to a public trial. Part of the right to a public trial is the right of the public to know what's going on in a courtroom, and to hold all of the parties accountable. Even though you could be - and I was - concerned about the impact right from the start, it seemed as though it was something that had a nobler purpose.

LYDEN: What's the biggest difference - would you say - as you prepare your case, when you realize that a trial is going to be broadcast?

CLARK: It doesn't really change the way you prepare a case. What you worry about more is the impact on witnesses, and on jurors. The spotlight created by these kind of high-profile cases can induce certain people to come forward who are not really witnesses, but want the spotlight - what I call faux witnesses. On the other hand, it can also dissuade people who are legitimate witnesses, but don't want the spotlight. And it may cause them to minimize whatever they have to offer, in terms of evidence and testimony, because they want to back away from the case. Can't tell you how many people tried to do that with me in the Simpson case, and wanted no part of it. So you have to weed through those, and it becomes a very thorny problem.

CLARK: In addition - there's no question, in my mind - lawyers behave differently, and judges behave differently, when there's a cam...

LYDEN: How so?

CLARK: Well, you know, lawyers tend to perform for the camera, especially - I'll probably get in trouble for this. (Laughing) - but the defense attorneys, in general. This, obviously, gives them a lot of face time, and it gives them a lot of notoriety; and they get business as a result of it. And then you have judges. Some really enjoy the spotlight - some pander to it; some do not.

I have to say, the Trayvon Martin case is a great example of a judge who doesn't pander to the spotlight. So she's an example of how a judge can handle it very well.

LYDEN: I'd like to go back to the pressure on witnesses. I'm thinking of this young woman who was a friend of Trayvon Martin, Rachel Jeantel. She was so highly - and unmercifully, I thought - scrutinized.

CLARK: It's so interesting to hear after the fact, people's responses to things. I watched all of her testimony; and she was clearly, very unhappy about being there. She didn't want any part of this case; that came through loud and clear. But she came across, to me, as eminently credible. She didn't necessarily try to paint Trayvon Martin as an angel, as Mr. Perfection. She quoted some of his statements that don't make him look good but were nevertheless - had the ring of truth.

LYDEN: So when we take a look at these, I mean, do you expect that this trend - I guess it is a trend - will continue? Or is it up to judges in various jurisdictions around the country - and maybe many of them take a look at this and think, that's not how I want to run my courtroom.

CLARK: Jacki, I thought after the Simpson trial was so crazy - it was such a bizarro world - I really thought judges around the country would say, no cameras in the courtroom. And it didn't happen. In case after case, once again, we have cameras in the courtroom. And it's now become its own reality show, which is why networks - cable networks, in particular - have gavel-to-gavel coverage of it, as a matter of course. And they're waiting for the next new thing.

As we speak now about Trayvon Martin - the case has just gone to the jury - the producers are actively, I promise you, looking for the next case to focus on because there's a public appetite for it. And I don't think it's going away.

LYDEN: Marcia Clark - she was the lead prosecutor during the O.J. Simpson trial and is the author of "Killer Ambition," a new novel based on her legal experience. Marcia Clark, it's been really good to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

CLARK: Been a real pleasure. Thank you, Jacki.

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