MARTY RUSSELL: Perverse entertainment can be a real trial

By Marty Russell

I can remember a time when people attended court proceedings, usually criminal trials, for entertainment. It wasn’t considered prurient or morbid. In small rural towns like those here in Mississippi, often it was the only form of entertainment around and it didn’t most anything, unlike a trip into the “big city” to see a movie or attend a performance.
In the summers it was also a way to escape the midday heat so, after the morning chores were done on the farm and before the day cooled off enough in the evening to resume work, you’d often find courtrooms packed with local farmers in their overalls fanning themselves in the days before air conditioning but glad to be out of the sun for a few hours.
But those days are long gone. With the advent of air conditioning, television and now the Internet, we can stay home rather than seek out some communal shade under the dome of a courthouse and entertain ourselves in any number of ways. Even the farmers no longer have to knock off in the heat of the day thanks to tractors with enclosed, air-conditioned cabs complete with GPS systems and DVD players.
So if you suggested to someone that you go spend an afternoon down at the courthouse watching a trial these days, you’d probably get a look usually reserved for highly contagious diseases as they slowly backed away from you. Having covered trials for most of my years as a journalist I can understand why. Trials can be extremely boring as both sides nitpick over obscure legal provisions, they can be repetitive as one side or the other tries to drive home a point by rote and don’t even get me started on those church-pew type benches found in most courtrooms that leave your backside numb after a few hours of testimony.
So I can’t understand why anyone other than lawyers or criminals – or criminal lawyers – would want to sit through an entire trial these days. When they confess that they do, it no longer conjures up the thought of an escape from the heat or cheap entertainment. What it does conjure up is prurience and morbidity.
Case in point: the Casey Anthony trial. I was watching the news the other day and a woman was asked if she was following the proceedings. “I haven’t missed a single episode,” the woman exclaimed. Episode? A young woman’s life is on the line. A child is dead. It’s not a reality TV show where everybody goes home at the end of the day.
I support televised court proceedings, even lobbied for them here in Mississippi. What better way to instill confidence in the system than to let citizens see how they work. But these days, anyone who watches them for “entertainment” should be closely watched themselves.


Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38655 or by email at marusse1@olemiss.edu.