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The Public Verdict

Arts & Culture | September 22, 2014

Our Obsession with Celebrity Trials

66 million people tuned in to the results of the 2012 presidential elections. Seventy-nine and a half million people watched the Twin Towers fall from their living rooms. Yet, 150 million Americans watched the delivery of the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial.

Do we care more about celebrity trials than significant national events?

Last year, Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was accused of shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. A month before the trial began in Pistorius’ native South Africa, a judge ruled that the majority of Pistorius’ hearings would be televised, broadcasted live, and recorded. The ruling came after multiple South African television networks requested access to broadcast the entirety of the trial, noting an exceptionally large international interest. Lawyers for Pistorius were quick to protect the defendant’s privacy, calling the request intrusive and distracting. The judge found a balance in his findings. He stated, “It is in the public interest that the goings-on be covered.” The trial’s emphasis is certainly on “public interest.”

Pistorius was found guilty of “culpable murder,” a verdict equivalent to manslaughter. Remaining free on bail until October, Pistorius escaped the most severe charge: premeditated murder and life in prison. The verdict came after a trial that was planned to last three weeks but instead took five months—a timeline that allowed the trial to pan out for international audiences like an episodic soap opera.

When Oscar Pistorius was 7 years-old, OJ Simpson, on trial for the murder of his wife, was dominating the airwaves. It’s been two decades since he was acquitted,

From OJ to Oscar, media outlets have exploited celebrity trials as public entertainment. Has the search for televised drama overshadowed the search to distinguish between innocence and guilt? Stephen Feldberg was working as a producer for Eye to Eye with Connie Chung on CBS, producing weekly specials for the duration of the trial in 1995. He told the Observer, “The reason why it became so huge was because of who OJ Simpson was. It was great theater.”

The Pistorius trial emerged as something of a theatrical event, too: Pistorius wept, sobbed, even vomited in court—resulting in a lengthy recess to asses if Pistorius was mentally stable enough for trial. Some say the tears were all an act. Others disagree. After Pistorius’ psychoanalysis—which lasted months—the trial resumed. A heartfelt Valentine’s letter from Skeenkamp to Pistrorius was read aloud; a photo of Skeenkamp’s bloodied head was shown live to the courtroom; a 1,700 page transcript of Whatssap messages between the couple was analyzed. High-drama moments meant spikes in viewers.

The trial itself marked South Africa’s largest social media event. Since the incident in February 2013, over 3.5 million tweets were posted with Pistorius-related content. The number of tweets tripled the population of the Johannesburg, nation’s capital.

BBC Three premiered a documentary last Monday titled, “Oscar Pistorius: The Truth” that offers an inside look into the trial and exclusive interviews with Reeva Steenkamp’s family. In South Africa, a special TV channel was created exclusively for information and live broadcasting about the Pistorius trial. This “pop-up channel” was the country’s go-to source for up to date information. The channel has since closed when Pistorius’ sentence was announced.

So what, exactly, sparked the global attention on OJ and Oscar? Was it their status as high profile, heroic athletes? Perhaps it’s our growing tendency towards voyeurism: even before Simpson’s trial began, OJ Simpson’s involvement in his wife’s death was a public spectacle. Groups of people watched from overpasses as Simpson engaged police in a low-speed highway chase that eventually ended at Simpson’s home.

Feldberg said that when Simpson’s trial began, “you couldn’t not cover it. It was one of those stories where for competitive reasons you had to be in the game and you had to be all over it all the time.” And for good reason. In a 2014 interview on Frontline, Ted Koppel of Nightline explained, “…every time we did OJ, the ratings went up ten percent. We could see it in the overnight ratings the next morning.” The trial lasted eleven months, and according to Feldberg, “it was very personality driven. As you watched more and more of it the attorneys became personalities, obviously OJ was a personality, the people who testified were personalities.”

That fact did not escape the jurors. David Aldana, one of the jurors in the Simpson trial, told nbclosangeles that defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was “a star,” emphasizing his entertainment value during long hours of testimony. Aldana was quick to say that he could not convict Simpson based on the evidence he was presented, but the public nature of these kinds of trials inherently colors the way that evidence is presented. In an interview with NPR, Columbia University Law professor Patricia Williams said that with both sides playing to the camera, “they focused on all the wrong things.”

As of last week, the Pistorius trial is over and he is a free man until October. He was spared the worst and will now serve a lesser sentence. With the trial at its end, there is no doubt Pistorius killed Reeva Skeenkamp as she hid in the bathroom behind a locked door. Perhaps his acquittal was the correct verdict within the scope of legal parameters. Perhaps something else was at play, something inextricably linked to the celebrity of the trial’s defendant—the same distinctive quality of Simpson’s trial.

Steven Fein, a professor of psychology at Williams College, studied the effects of publicity on the verdict in the Simpson trial. He told the Observer, “Given all that massive coverage, it’s hard to imagine that at least some of the members of the jury wouldn’t have felt a good deal of pressure about their role in the case. They knew their decision would have unprecedented scrutiny.”

From accusation to verdict, televised trials play out like our favorite TV shows. Unlike the 24-hour news cycle, trials are episodic; unpredictable twists and charismatic players keep viewers coming back for more in a way that the 5 o’clock news cannot. This obsession seems harmless, but maybe, as Fein suggests, there is something larger at work—perhaps the clear path to justice is blurred by our voyeuristic fascination.