Thursday, October 16, 2003
TV, Radio Feature Reenactments Of Trials—Even a Pre-Enactment
By ROGER M. GRACE
Going back to the 1940s, there have been re-enactments of courtroom proceedings on television, and before that, on radio. In 1995, the ABC television network staged something new:
The O.J. Simpson murder trial was in progress, and acting as commentators for the network were former Los Angeles County District Attorney Robert H. Philibosian and criminal defense attorney Leslie Abramson. With the evidence in, and with closing arguments ahead, Philibosian and Abramson acceded to a request to do a special segment on the network’s “Good Morning, America.”
On this occasion, they would not comment, but would perform.
Staged at USC’s Moot Court “courtroom,” Philibosian presented a mock closing argument for the prosecution and Abramson delivered a like pitch for the defense. (Unlike actual proceedings where the prosecution starts and finishes, both sides had a single turn at bat.)
“Leslie and I each had three minutes—which is a long time on network television,” Philibosian recounted.
Harvard Law School Prof. Howard Miller, host of the 1982-85 syndicated public affairs show “Miller’s Court,” then came on and critiqued the summations.
The actual closing arguments were by Christopher Darden for the prosecution and Johnnie Cochran for the defense. Philibosian joked that those two “weren’t smart enough to pick up” on the mock summations he and Abramson had delivered.
Philibosian, a partner in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, told me that he was approached by a TV magazine show after the decision was made not to allow TV cameras in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. The concept was to air reenactments of scenes from that trial.
What was proposed was “strictly an entertainment show,” Philibosian said, recounting that he responded that he wasn’t interested. The proposed format, he noted, was never utilized.
The “pre-enactment” of oral argument is a technique not apt to repeated with frequency. It was used on “Good Morning, America” to capitalize on the nation’s O.J.-mania, albeit in the context of an informative demonstration.
But re-enacting actual proceedings is an idea whose time may have come—again.
That was the approach taken in “Famous Jury Trials,” aired on the Du Mont network from 1949-52. It featured flashbacks to incidents being described by the witness who was testifying. (Since the show was live, the actor playing the witness had to dash, huffing and puffing, from the courtroom set to the set where the flashback was staged, then back to the courtroom set.)
Other courtroom shows through the years, such as “Day in Court” and “The Verdict Is Yours,” have been inspired by fact situations in actual cases, but have not been reenactments of trials.
It’s doubtful that there are any surviving kinescopes of “Famous Jury Trials,” but episodes of the radio series, broadcast from 1936-49, are available. There are vendors of “old time radio” shows, including that show, who sell episodes on audio cassettes or on CD-ROMs featuring files in the super-compressed .mp3 format. Too, there are websites which, for a fee, give you access to scads shows to download. Two pay-sites I’ve come across permit downloading via ftp.
A radio show with the same format as “Famous Jury Trials” was “Consider Your Verdict,” episodes of which are also available on cassettes, CD-ROMs, and on the Internet. It ran from 1945-55 on Australian radio, and was then on South African radio, Springbok, from 1957-85. If the theme music of post 1967 episodes sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the tune used on television’s “Perry Mason.”
The latest show with “reenactments” of trials was “On Trial,” a daytime series featuring Raymond Burr. Aired in 1987, it lasted but a single season.
Of the eight courtroom shows now on TV (nine, if you count “Celebrity Justice,” a magazine show with feature-news accounts of cases involving stars), there are no reenactments. The shows involve actual disputes of “real people,” with unscripted squabbling in simulated court proceedings.
Would reenactments of actual trials, with dialogue taken from transcripts, find favor with viewers?
Flashbacks would probably be viewed today as hokey, especially since TV-watchers are now accustomed to the “reality” approach. But what about staged versions of trials that were newsworthy in their times—the trials of Charles Manson, L. Ewing Scott, and Barbara Graham, for example—sans flashbacks?
It’s not a new format. But courtroom shows come in waves. Maybe it’s time for “Famous Jury Trials” to make its return.
Next week, a wrap-up on courtroom TV shows.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company