Big Trials and Public Drama

I’m always amazed when I read press accounts of cases I have either tried, or am in the midst of trying: the reporter’s gloss rarely reflects the complexity of the proceeding. Often, what’s reported is just plain wrong. But the public appetite for trial news appears to be insatiable. 


My theory is Freudian: Trial is where we take the seven deadly sins – wrathgreedslothpridelustenvy, and gluttony – and put them on display. We identify with the accused at criminal trials: His sins are ours, only writ large; we could have done the same. The defendant must be punished or our self-restraint is mocked.

Of course there are exceptions to this theory: Sometimes we identify with the alleged victim, demanding relief for him or her as though we ourselves suffered the injury.

Civilization is a complex mystery. It is no wonder our discontent leaks out in morbid preoccupation with the sorrows of others.

Lawrence M. Friedman’s latest book, The Big Trial: Law As Public Spectacle, is a scholarly treatment of our fascination with trials. Although he doesn’t adopt the Freudian point of view, he doesn’t contradict it either.

In Friedman’s view, big trials are part entertainment and part teaching -- or, as he puts it more times than I can count, “didactic” – exercises. The boundaries of community norms are explored at trial. We teach one another what is, and what is not, to be tolerated.

Studying trials are also useful social history:  “Arguments and strategies in jury trials are windows into social stereotypes and norms, into what people think and believe,” Friedman writes. “They can help show us which norms, ideas, and attitudes pack the most punch, at various points in history.”

His discussion of the Lizzie Borden case – she was acquitted for the murder of her father and step-mother in 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts  -- prompted chilling memories of a classmates of mine in Chicago standing on my doorstep to chant: 

“Lizzie Borden had an axe 

She gave her mother 40 whacks, 

When she saw what she had done 

She gave her father 41.”

How did the tale of this double-murder find its way from Massachusetts to Chicago half a century later? Did the poem’s power to terrify me have anything to do with the fact that my father had recently disappeared? I knew about Lizzie Borden in a personal way before I ever learned of the crimes with which she was charged.

The Internet is changing trial coverage by the media. There are websites, such as, dedicated to nothing but coverage of high-profile cases. Daily newspapers struggle to meet the demand for coverage – depressed budgets requires reporters do more with less. 

Should trials be televised? I say not. Watching another lawyer try a case is, for me, like watching ice melt on a cool October morning – I just won’t do it. I suspect most trial watchers don’t really pay attention from gavel to gavel. Television is a distraction to the participants, sometimes intimidating witnesses, other times emboldening them to seek their fifteen minutes of fame from the stand. Remember Kato from O.J.’s case?

I love Friedman’s books. He’s written previously on the criminal justice system and on prisons. He’s a careful researched and has a scholar’s love of explanatory footnotes. 

If you are fascinated about why and how some trials go viral, why the general public adopts other people’s troubles as their own, read this brief and insightful little book. I liked it so much I will re-read it soon.


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