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Should We Televise the Trials of Famous Murderers?

The press is eagerly awaiting its chance to get cameras inside the trial of the man charged with shooting 12 people in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, but the families of victims say the media attention will only cause them unneeded pain.

by Gina Tron
Sep 19 2014, 2:35pm

Screenshot of the Aurora shooter at a hearing via YouTube

On July 20, 2012, a man stood up from his seat in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that was showing a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and opened fire on the audience. In the ensuing violence, 12 people were killed and 70 were injured. The shooter’s motive has never been clear—the suspect told police he was the Joker after they took him into custody—but as is usually the case with the perpetrators of mass killings, he’s since been the subject of a lot of media attention and speculation in the 26 months since the incident.

So it’s not surprising that cable channel TruTV (formally Court TV), six local television channels, and a Denver radio station have petitioned Arapahoe County district court chief Carlos Samour to allow cameras in his courtroom when the trial starts in December. But Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, the parents of 24-year-old shooting victim Jessica Ghawi, say that putting the proceedings on TV will give the killer too much attention. 

“It doesn’t do the families, who should be the focus, any good at all. It just brings up constant, constant pain,” Sandy told me. “It’s going to be bad enough sitting in the courtroom hearing the things we need to hear and seeing the things we need to see, but for everybody in America to be seeing it too, it’s just too much.”

The defense attorney and prosecutors have also asked for cameras to be banned in the courtroom, as have some other family members of victims, including Caren and Tom Teves (parents of Alex Teves) and Anita Busch (a cousin of Micayla Medek). Last week, Busch published an op-ed in the Denver Post asking that cameras be kept away from the trial.

“Behind the scenes, the families of the deceased and injured in Aurora have already had to deal with additional trauma from harassment related to the case,” she wrote. “Having cameras in the courtroom to broadcast these images across the globe and give notoriety to the monster accused of this crime will give rise to emotionally overwhelming incidents and on a much greater scale.”

While talking with the Phillips family, I noticed that Lonnie and Sandy weren’t using the name of the Aurora shooter (which I have decided not to include in this article). “I never use his name,” said Sandy. “When media does use his name, when they do use his picture, they’re giving him the very thing that he sought out.”

Criminals have always been a source of fascination for the public. In the pre-television era, killers like Billy the Kid and thieves like Bonnie and Cylde were turned into the stuff of legend through newspaper accounts and songs. Naturally, it didn’t take long after the widespread adoption of television for the new medium to work its way into courtrooms.

The first murder trial to allow cameras was that of Jack Gilbert Graham, who in 1955 blew up a plane flying from Denver to Portland, Oregon, by hiding a bomb in his mother’s suitcase, killing all 44 people on board. The media scrum around him was such that before the trial, local radio station Gene Amole and a Rocky Mountain News photographer snuck a camera into Denver County Jail to interview Graham (though no Denver TV station would air the footage). 

Serial killer Ted Bundy’s 1979 trial was the first to be nationally televised, and in 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that states could allow criminal proceedings to be photographed and filmed. The 90s were a sort of golden age for televised trials: Dozens of news organizations from all over the world were there to show viewers Jeffrey Dahmer being found guilty of murder in 1992, and millions tuned into Court TV the next year to watch the trial of the Menendez brothers, who killed their wealthy parents with a shotgun.

Then there was the O. J. Simpson trial. Judge Lance Ito allowed cameras into his courtroom and reportedly became so taken with the publicity that he’d watch himself on TV at home. By then, it was clear that people loved watching murder trials.

In 2011, a million people tuned into a CNN livestream to watch a judge pronounce Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter. A couple years later, in 2013, Ohio school shooter T. J. Lane wore a shirt that said “KILLER” to his televised sentencing hearing and told the victims’ families, “The hand that pulls the trigger that killed your sons now masturbates to the memory. Fuck all of you.” That moment resulted in predictable shock and outrage, but also got turned into a GIF. You can’t help but wonder if a reaction like that—and attention like that—is exactly what Lane wanted.

That’s not to say that all murder trials, even all murder trials with a media-friendly hook, get covered like Anthony’s or Lane’s.

“As far as what cases get picked up by the media, it’s always been a difficult thing for me to even predict,” said Douglas Richards, a Denver criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “I remember as a prosecutor years ago I would handle all these murder cases and the cases just seemed so heart-wrenching to me and I couldn’t figure out why Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams wasn’t right there covering the case.”

It’s easy, in the case of the Aurora shooting trial, to see why people are interested—a tragic and bizarre crime, a defendant who seems insane and hasn’t shown any remorse, even a link to a Hollywood film. Ultimately, however, the level of access the press has will be determined by Judge Samour, who Lonnie Phillips says will make his decision in the next few days.

“You have to get permission from the court and it’s up to the individual judge to decide whether or not to have that in the courtroom,” said Richards. “The judge will decide where the cameras will be put, what proceedings will be broadcast.”

In 2012, the Denver Post defended allowing cameras in courtrooms in high-profile trials like that of the Aurora shooter, arguing that the public has a right to know what’s going on when a case has become a major news story.

But while Sandy Phillips doesn’t hate the media, she’s wary of so much interest in the trial of the man charged with killing her daughter.

“I don’t think anybody does anything to intentionally hurt us. They are doing their job. They are covering the story,” she said. “But when they get away from the human side of the story, and it becomes sensationalism, that’s when it’s dangerous.”

She worries about the message it sends to the mass murderer who took her daughter’s life, and also the message it sends to future perpetrators of such crimes.

“We all know that on some level that this is part of the plan of the killer—to have that fame and glory, and that’s what is scary.”

Gina Tron is a freelance writer and author of a memoir, You’re Fine. Follow her on Twitter.