Murder as Entertainment: When crime becomes a spectacle, ‘presumed innocent’ seems almost optional

by Garrison Wynn, CSP







When did murder trials become entertainment? ? Most people might peg O.J. Simpson as the founding father of prime-time crime. Yet our fascination with high-profile trial outcomes stems further back than that; 150 years ago, you brought your kids out to see Saturday morning hangings. With mass media feeding our fascination, and with our hyperconnectedness serving up the grisly details faster than ever, it now seems that the only way to keep your ratings alive is with—well, death.

Fictional crime drama is no match for a woman in her 20s whose hairstyle changes almost as often as her story, as she looks into the camera with that blank, youthful stare that seems to convey her guilt along with a touch of “Did I leave the gas on?”

Lately, it seems, the idea that young women can be “the bad guy” is too exciting to resist. Let’s be honest. Our culture has always been taken with young women, and now we get to demonize them a bit. I think it’s the mean girl/teen vampire syndrome come to life. Of course, it’s more sensational when the women are somewhat attractive. It may be against the law for a homely young woman to kill someone, but it’s apparently not news.

What does this say about our culture?

Doesn’t it seem that in all the popular crime dramas, the alleged murderer gets convicted? Guilt apparently gets higher ratings than innocence, I guess. Or maybe the prime-time audience just needs some closure at the end of the hour. Either way, it makes you wonder: Do fictional shows where the antagonist is always found guilty predispose us to believe that the real-life accused must have done it? If so, does that affect how we as jurors will react to evidence? If you watch TV shows where the accused is always guilty of murder, you might tend to think that most people with decent circumstantial evidence against them are guilty. The question undergoes a subtle but significant shift from “Did they do it?” to “Didn’t they do it?!”

Granted, when a defendant acts as oddly as 32-year-old Jodi Arias does in court, it’s hard to believe she’s an honest person. Arias, whose trial actually had its own TV show, confessed to killing her boyfriend in self-defense in 2008. Crime-scene photos and discussions of the grisly killing elicited little reaction from her. Prosecutor Juan Martinez pounced on her aloofness and selective memory like a guy who has watched his share of The Practice. Despite his severe and sensational tactics, Martinez likely had more influence than Arias because he’s authentic—believable and relatable. Audiences can’t identify with Arias because she doesn’t act the way we think she should. She behaves the way we see the murderers act on those TV dramas. In the court of public opinion, that could be enough for a conviction. (No need to even consider that little matter of her inconsistent testimony.)

The truth is, these young defendants could be guilty or innocent. We don’t know at the outset of the proceedings. But we can observe that they seem not to exhibit much compassion or remorse. From studying generational differences, we know that we have raised today’s young men and women to have more self-esteem than previous generations, and high self-esteem usually does not go hand in hand with displays of great remorse or compassion. Maybe people of younger generations don’t come across on camera the way we think they should. Maybe we’re used to more remorse as exhibited by people of a different generation.

In 2011, Casey Anthony was tried for the 2008 murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Witnesses provided testimony that Casey behaved like normal in the weeks that Caylee was missing. The public, I guess, expected some different behavior on the part of a young, distraught, single mother. To most of us, entering a Hot Bodies contest at a Florida bar does not exactly spell concern.

Take note, young people: If you seem to be only slightly annoyed when they find the body of your missing toddler, it would seem that you’re “guilty as homemade sin,” as my genteel, Georgia-raised father used to say.

This runs opposite to what our legal system is founded on. Has the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty gone by the wayside? When televised trials get rehashed and analyzed on prime-time commentaries, it appears that the defense has to fight all the harder to establish innocence, at least in the court of public opinion. And of course, “the public” is where our true jurors come from.

Before they ever step into a jury box, most jurors have watched some TV, even if it has nothing to do with the case they will serve on. They’ve seen some Law and Order, some CSI, some sensationalized court proceedings. Are they influenced by TV? Do we stop them from watching TV? Are we at the point where entertainment TV now influences actual, literal life-and-death outcomes?

These are questions we should probably ask, because this stuff’s on the TV all the time. We see Nancy Grace up on the hi-def flat-screen with a look on her face that says, “My show lasts five hours, so these people had better have done something.” We like Nancy Grace because she carries our anger for us. We don’t have to get too worked up; she seems content being outraged on our behalf.

But I’m concerned that some person on trial might not get a fair shot. Surrounding the recent Arias case, they created a mock trial on a news show where they poll people on a panel, trying to determine whether the greater populace thinks she’s guilty. They had fake blood stains in a model of the victim’s apartment, and they had two people kind of tussling, rolling around and mock stabbing each other in front of a mock jury. It’s kind of nuts. I’ve heard of Off-Off-Broadway; this is kind of like Off-Off-Reality. And I wonder if it’s playing to an audience that can discern the difference.

Let’s be honest: Good news does not sell newspapers. In a high-profile case, if the defendant is found innocent, it doesn’t help ratings or readership one bit. We need a guilty verdict! We need to know that an attractive young woman did it. That’s news.

And that is concerning.

In addition, sometimes people just look guilty merely by the way things are set up. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? If your legal team consists of Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey, you obviously did it! This is not the legal defense team of an innocent person. “If your lawyer is wearing $1,200 shoes, you’re guilty” – that’s our thought process these days.

Again, this is the opposite of what our legal system is founded on. The “presumption of innocence” notion seems to be inconsequential as it’s tried in the court of public opinion, with television news and talk shows creating mockups of crime scenes, play-acting what happened and polling the man on the street.

I make no conjectures about any of these people on trial. Maybe they’re all guilty. I’m merely expressing some concern: We fought awfully hard to establish a system in which people would be considered innocent until proven guilty. If only we could find a way to make things more just and not lose the ratings, I believe we’d have something.

Garrison Wynn is a nationally known speaker and consultant, the author of the bestseller The Real Truth About Success, and the CEO of Wynn Solutions.

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