Courts Reporter Looks Back on Memorable Trials

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Linda Deutsch has had a front row seat to the most-notorious courtroom trials in the last 40 years. The Associated Press reporter covered the trials of Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, Angela Davis, O.J. Simpson, the police who were videotaped beating Rodney King, and many more.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Over the past four decades, if you've read newspaper stories about the trials of Charles Manson, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Angela Davis, John Delorian, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, chances are at least a few of those stories appeared under the byline Linda Deutsch.

Based in Los Angeles, Deutsch has had a ringside seat for some of the country's most sensational trials as a reporter for the Associated Press. Last week, the AP threw Linda Deutsch a big, flashy party to celebrate her 40 years on the court beat. Of course, she was the star.

Her fascination with court reporting began with this event in 1968.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Unidentified Man: Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Is that possible?

NORRIS: Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, just after midnight. Deutsch told me her shift that night had just begun.

Ms. LINDA DEUTSCH (Trial Reporter, Associated Press): That was my first huge, huge story in the L.A. bureau, and it changed my life. I had been thinking about a career covering entertainment, believe it or not. And after the Sirhan trial, in which I was kind of a backup reporter, the following year, the next thing that happened was the killing of Sharon Tate and her friends. And the Tate-LaBianca killings obviously became one of the biggest stories of all time, and I was assigned to it immediately, and I covered the entire Manson trial.

NORRIS: You were not initially the lead reporter on that…

Ms. DEUTSCH: That's right. I was too young. And they had a trial expert in New York, Art Everett(ph), who was very well known, who was a very dignified gentleman who did not like to stay away from home for long. And he looked around, and he saw what was going on at this trial. This trial had people having LSD flashbacks in the courtroom, kids camped outside on the sidewalk threatening to immolate themselves for Charlie Manson, and then there were predictions that the trial was going to last a year.

And one day, Art came up to me, and he said you know what? I think I had a vacation scheduled. And he left, and he never came back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: What a heck of a way to get a promotion.

Ms. DEUTSCH: That's right, and for the next year, I was the reporter on the Manson trial. It's amazing how your life changes. It's all timing.

NORRIS: Were you in court the day that Charles Manson leapt at the judge with that pencil in his hand?

Ms. DEUTSCH: I sure was. Charlie was getting upset with the judge, and he was very small and lithe, and he went flying across the counsel table with this pencil in his hand and yelled out: someone should cut your head off, old man. And he was, of course, leapt upon by sheriff's deputies, who dragged him out, but that was one of the huge stories of the trial.

NORRIS: He had a terrifying stare, and it was reported that sometimes he would actually glower at the press corps. Were you ever on the receiving end of one of those stares?

Ms. DEUTSCH: Oh yes. One day my dear friend and mentor - Theo Wilson, who was the great reporter for the New York Daily News - she and I were sitting in the front row, and it was a break in testimony, and Charlie turned and glowered at us and said: your karma is coming down on you. And Theo, who was wonderful, looked at him and said: oh shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: That trial lasted for more than a year. It must've been exhausting, though.

Ms. DEUTSCH: It was exhausting, and it was mind-bending. It was - you lived in a different reality, because you were suddenly in this world of this commune that he ran. They called them hippies, but they weren't really. They were just out of the culture. And because we were covering it full-time, that was our world. And people who would hear us in restaurants, the reporters talking about all this, would be mesmerized because the stories were so outrageous.

NORRIS: Sometimes the cases that you covered were, in many ways, a litmus test for society, whether it was the kidnapping trial involving Patty Hearst or the Angela Davis trial. Some saw her as a hero. Others saw her as an activist.

Ms. DEUTSCH: I always say that trials mirror history. That if you wanted to know what was going on in America at a specific time, you needed to walk into a courtroom and look around and listen to what was happening. And you would see, for instance in the Ellsberg trial, you saw the Vietnam War. In the Angela Davis trial, you saw the story of the Black Panthers. In the Patty Hearst trial, we had post-Vietnam alienation.

You go on and on, and you come up to the more present time with the O.J. Simpson trial, which was - which had all the elements of celebrity and racism and domestic violence - a lot of issues.

NORRIS: Linda, you also covered the Rodney King trial, the trial of the four police officers who were accused of beating Rodney King and sparked the riots that flared up all throughout the Los Angeles area. What was it like covering that as a reporter but also as a resident of the city?

Ms. DEUTSCH: Well, the trial was not held in the city. It was moved out of the city to Simi Valley, which is a bedroom community north of here. And it was in a place that really had no relevance to Los Angeles, which is one of the reasons, I think, that played into them being acquitted.

And I think I was sitting in the courtroom, and there was a reporter sitting next to me, and when we heard the verdict, she said to me: now we can cover the riots.

And to me, it was the most depressing of all the verdicts I've ever covered, because it went right to the heart of what I believed about trials, and it seemed to undermine my beliefs. I always believed that no matter how bad a situation was, you could go into a courtroom, and you could settle things in a civilized way.

In this case, the trial triggered the worst riots in Los Angeles history. I could not get back to the city after the verdict because the roads were closed, and I watched my city burn on television. It was terrible.

NORRIS: Linda, why have you stayed on this beat so long?

Ms. DEUTSCH: Oh, it's so fascinating. I can't think of anything I would rather do. It's like being in a theater every day. It's like being in the front row seat to history. It's - no other beat offers this kind of access to human emotion.

You get at the heart of what people are about. And I think that the murder trial, whether it has any historical significance or not, is always of interest because people wonder: Could I do that? And I sit there and have to listen to both sides, put the pieces together, and present them to an audience. It's the most exciting thing I can think that any reporter could do.

NORRIS: Linda Deutsch has just celebrated 40 years on the courthouse beat for the Associate Press, based in Los Angeles. Good to talk to you, Linda, and congratulations.

Ms. DEUTSCH: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: And in case you were wondering, she's still on the beat. Linda Deutsch says, up for her next, is probably the Phil Spector case, another Hollywood murder trial.

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