FLORENCE GILKESON: Real Courts Aren't Like 'Law & Order'
The difference between television courtroom drama and the real thing is an abyss, not a fine line.
Anyone who has ever sat in a courtroom knows that it takes many hours, sometimes days, to encapsulate the succinct drama the viewer sees on "Law & Order" or other TV shows and movies depicting courtroom trials.
In the case of "Law & Order," the trial takes about 15 minutes, with time set aside to solve unexpected developments. The rest of the time is devoted to commission of a crime and the "order" side of the case. Then subtract time for commercials.
I learned this the hard way as a rookie reporter 54 years ago. My prior experience in the courtroom was traffic court in Chapel Hill, where journalism students received a modest baptism in reality. It soon became clear then that the major "crime" committed in Chapel Hill was parking on the sidewalk, largely because there was no other place to park.
True, drama does occur in the courtrooms of North Carolina, and I witnessed plenty. But in between the drama are long episodes of nothingness, or at least that's the way it used to be. Trials are punctuated by long conferences with the judge by attorneys and even longer periods when the jury is removed from the courtroom while the judge determines whether certain testimony or other evidence is suitable for jurors' eyes and ears.
Whereas actors sum up their arguments to the jury in a colorful couple of minutes, it takes the honest-to-goodness lawyer as much as an hour to present closing arguments. Then everyone must listen as the judge reviews the evidence and explains the law -- which, depending on the length and complexity of the case, may take one hour or half a day, or longer.
Today's judges do a better job of outreach to jurors and the public than they did in my days in the courtroom. I do remember one judge, Hamilton Hobgood, who went out of his way to explain what was happening to jurors. Hobgood, in addition to being a fair and reasonable judge, would always give you a pretty good lesson in criminal justice while you sat in his courtroom.
Unfortunately, he was something of a rarity. All too often, the juror was in the dark most of the time, and the only folks who really understood the goings-on, other than lawyers, were the courtroom regulars, people who have been to court so many times that they know its ins and outs almost as well as the professionals.
A friend once confessed that after serving on a jury, he had to read the trial account in the newspaper to understand what had happened. This was a case in which the jury heard voluminous testimony only to have the trial end abruptly, either because the defendant entered a guilty plea or because the judge threw the case out for legal reasons. That case never went to the jury, whose members had listened obediently for hours on end.
As a teen, I hungrily read every Erle Stanley Gardner novel starring Perry Mason and became enamored of the trial scene. Courtroom reality was a disappointment.
That reality meant sitting for ages on hard benches and fighting off the urge to snooze while waiting for a few moments of drama or, at least, a few moments of lucidity pertinent to the case. The truth is, I was waiting for something newsworthy to happen.
These memories returned when I read Scott Mooneyham's column about the proposal to broadcast state House sessions on television or computer, similar to C-SPAN. Mooneyham had about the same attitude I have about courtroom reporting. He too has sat through long sessions of paper-rustling and general confusion while waiting for the sparkle of something newsworthy.
In the case of lawmakers, it must be admitted that frequently rhetoric, for lack of a better word, rarely comes out on the eloquent side. The ers, ahs and uhs are not uncommon.
A few years ago, interest was expressed in televising meetings of the Moore County Board of Commissioners. At the time, I wondered if the commissioners really wanted their meetings to be available for scrutiny by the general public -- that is, the public sufficiently interested to watch the meetings upon returning home from work.
One friend said she planned to protest if the county spent her tax money on such foolishness. The subject has not arisen in recent months, and I suspect that the cost and technical issues have sidelined the project.
Supporters of such measures are quite correct. The airing of legislative and local government meetings does open the work of elected officials to the people who elected them, or who voted for opponents. It's also possible that it might change the outcome of the next election.
One thing is for sure: It won't be as entertaining as "Law & Order."
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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