Professor Roy Gutterman L’00 Writes “Spectacle of O.J. Trial is One Reason We Won’t Get to See Trump’s”

Every generation has a Trial of the Century. The recent death of O.J. Simpson resurrected a courtroom drama that continues to span generations. As the Trial of the Century closes in on its 30-year anniversary, a new legal drama is about to unfold in a New York City courtroom: People of the State of New York vs. Donald J. Trump.

Cable news anchors in front of the courthouse in New York City breathlessly invoked the term “historic” for former president Donald Trump’s hush money criminal trial within a week of the death of the protagonist of one of the biggest courtroom dramas the public has seen.

The public should get to see Trump on trial. But we won’t, in part because of the circus the Simpson murder trial became.

The Simpson trial is still a touchstone for a range of socio-political and legal issues, including celebrity, power, race, money, domestic violence, and entertainment. It has also stood as a symbol for the hazards of televising criminal trials.

The fully televised trial captivated audiences. It made bigger celebrities of all the “Dream Team” lawyers involved in the defense, the prosecutors, police, and some witnesses, as well as many of the reporters covering the spectacle. It generated books and movies and even gave the public a first glimpse of both DNA scientific evidence and the Kardashians.

As much as the concept of the “trial of the century” is temporal, it is also geographic. In an era before cable television and digital streaming, trials really were a local spectacle. Nothing illustrates that better than the courtroom scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where the courtroom was packed with community observers. Here in Syracuse, we have had some high-profile, perhaps even potentially sensationalistic trials over the years. The 2009 trial of Stacey Castor, the anti-freeze “Black Widow” convicted of poisoning her husband, was videotaped for later broadcast. The 2015 murder trial of Robert Neulander, in another era, might have achieved that kind of tabloid-type exposure seen with some recent trials — Casey Anthony in Florida and Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard.

Thirty years on, the legal importance of the O.J. Simpson case seems somewhat irrelevant. The trial yielded its pop culture moments, including catchphrases that live on today — “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” As a primer on legal concepts and the importance of how Americans perform our justice in public, the trial served an important purpose. But it became an out-of-control spectacle from the beginning that blurred the lines between justice and entertainment.

Today, there is no doubt the public would benefit from having a seat in the New York City or federal courtrooms where Trump is being tried. Likewise, the public would also benefit if the United States SupremeCourt televised its oral arguments.

In the post-COVID-19 world, the U.S. Supreme Court now live-streams the audio of oral arguments, a tremendous step forward for legal observers, reporters, and cable news outlets.

But these New York state and federal courtrooms where Trump is being tried will remain off limits to televised coverage, ostensibly to maintain the decorum of the court, to ensure certain elements of privacy and to preserve certain Sixth Amendment rights for a fair trial.

The technology has evolved to the point where the cameras would not be a distraction for those in the courtroom, especially jurors, though the lawyers certainly might be. But once a jury is selected, judges can clamp down the courtroom and try to make sure jurors are only weighing the evidence that is legally admitted. Judges have tremendous power to rein in misbehavior, especially when it is the lawyers who are misbehaving.

But the power to hold someone, particularly a misbehaving lawyer or even an obstreperous defendant, in contempt of court requires some ability to enforce rules. A judge cannot enforce rules with a party who does not believe the rules apply to him. It would be interesting to see how that would play out on TV.

More than 20 years ago, comedian Jon Stewart facetiously coined the phrase, “The Trial of the Century of the Week,” which could easily be applied to Trump’s legal disputes across jurisdictions. Of course, they are a far cry from the televised spectacle of the O.J. Simpson case.

Unlike the Simpson case, nobody in any of the Trump legal dramas was murdered. Even today, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, who were brutally stabbed to death, seem like minor characters or a footnote in a larger story. But with the multitude of Trump cases, the breathless newscasters cry that democracy weighs in the balance of justice. The public ought to be able to watch that.

Professor Roy Gutterman L’00

Director, Tully Center for Free Speech
Professor, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication
Professor of Law, College of Law (by courtesy appointment)