Photo via Fulton County Sheriff’s Office
The first of the televised sessions in former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy trial in Georgia aired Sept. 5, and it was dull as a butter knife: Two of the 19 alleged conspirators arguing to have their cases separated from the mob and from each other.
It was an inauspicious start to what is potentially the most important court case of our lifetime.
TV pundits applaud the fact that the trial — scheduled for October — will be televised. It will guarantee “transparency” in the legal system for both sides, they say.
But it could also potentially be the most chaotic trial of our lifetime. For precedent, we have only to look back 10 years to Arizona’s Jodi Arias murder trial in 2013.
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It could have been an ugly, second-degree domestic murder, but was instead charged as a death penalty case by an overreaching prosecutor. It was hyped nationally by a cable TV talk-show host. It had an attractive male victim and an attractive female defendant, naked photos of both and X-rated phone calls. Every minute of the trial, and all the salacious details, were broadcast live and captivated not just Arizonans, but people all over the world.
What should have been a legal dust devil whirled into a full-fledged tornado over social media.
Trial groupies stalked the attorneys and sent them explicit death threats. One expert witness checked into the emergency room because of stress. Other witnesses refused to testify at all, leaving jurors without information that very well could have changed the outcome of the trial.
The prosecutor posed with his fans on the courthouse steps and had an affair with an amateur blogger who allegedly helped him dig up dirt on jurors. A dismissed juror texted him photos of her breasts. Both he and Arias’ lead defense attorney, who self-published a tell-all book before Arias even had her appeal, surrendered their law licenses rather than go through humiliating disbarment hearings for things they did during and after the trials.
Groupies on both sides of that case still obsess about it.
So, now we head into Trump’s case that has already sparked violence — not against individuals, but against the establishment and American democracy itself. And whereas the Arias trial had been a perfect storm of TV meeting social media, the upcoming Trump trial in Georgia adds a third element: outrageously polarized politics.
Three centuries of media mayhem
Media circuses are not new phenomena. Vice President Aaron Burr’s 1807 trial for treason drew so much press scrutiny that the founders contemplated how the First Amendment’s freedom of the press conflicted with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments’ rights to due process and a fair trial.
The 1935 Bruno Hauptmann trial over kidnapping and killing aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was so overwhelmed by newspaper photographers and newsreel cameramen that the judge banned them from the courtroom. They snuck in anyway.
And 1995 brought the O.J. Simpson trial, broadcast live on cable by the fledgling Court TV.
Simpson was a famous retired football hero accused of brutally murdering his wife and a man she was with. As a warm-up to the trial, Simpson’s impending arrest was broadcast live, shot from above as he fled in a slow-motion Ford Bronco chase to nowhere. The trial brought crowds to the courthouse. The attorneys, and even the judge, played to the cameras.
“OJ set the gold standard for circus trials,” said Mike Watkiss, who covered the trial for the television news magazine, “A Current Affair.” OJ, he said, set the standard for the cable business model: “One story, 24/7.”
Three decades later, Watkiss covered the Arias trial for Channel 3, KTVK, in Phoenix.
“Jodi is the gold standard of jurisprudence in the age of social media,” he said.
The femme fatale factor
There was a prelude to the Arias case, and her name was Casey Anthony.
Anthony was a young single mother in Florida whose toddler daughter went missing. She first claimed that the child had been stolen by a nanny, and then said she had drowned accidentally in a family member’s swimming pool, and she had disposed of the body. Witnesses said that Anthony was out partying in the following days, and as in most cases against women, they drew attention to how enticingly she was dressed.
The crime talk show host Nancy Grace picked up the story on her HLN show, and rode Casey Anthony’s 2011 trial into the ratings. Then when Anthony was acquitted, Grace turned her attention to the case she thought would be “Casey Anthony for 2012”: the upcoming Jodi Arias trial.
I first heard of Arias in August 2009 when, as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, I accidentally attended the hearing when a judge decided there were credible aggravating factors in the case to try for a death sentence. The prosecutor, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Juan Martinez, postulated that Arias had shot Travis Alexander, her sometime boyfriend, in the head and then stabbed him 27 times.
Arias admitted she killed Alexander, but said it was in self-defense. Martinez argued for premeditated murder. The jury could have found something in between.
It was not a high-profile case on anyone’s radar, and as ugly as it was, I still believe that, if Alexander had killed Arias, he would have been offered a plea agreement to second-degree murder and sentenced to 14 or so years in prison. It might have merited a short article in the local section of the paper.
Arias offered to plead to second-degree murder, but the prosecution refused.
The next I heard of Jodi Arias was when I got a phone call from a Nancy Grace producer, asking if I would call into her show that evening to talk about Arias. A judge was going to consider her eligibility for the death penalty, she told me.
That decision had been made long ago, I answered, and, frankly, I didn’t know enough about the case to comment on it. But I tuned in that evening. They had found a replacement for me, a man identified as a DJ from San Antonio, Texas, whose contribution was to breathlessly say, “Nancy, she slit his throat from ear-to-ear!” I marveled that a radio DJ from Texas would know more about the case than any Phoenix journalists.
Watkiss had his own preview of the trial. He was in a Channel 3 live truck downtown, waiting for his cue to go on air when Martinez wandered by. The prosecutor asked what Watkiss was working on.
Then, Watkiss recalls, Martinez made a suggestion: “I have a trial for you — Jodi Arias.”
Watkiss said he had never heard of her.
“Jodi Arias,” Martinez repeated. “Naked pictures!”
Neither Watkiss nor I had any idea how the case had already taken hold on cable TV. As the trial approached, I reported on pretrial hearings, many of them concerning the defense trying to pry discovery materials out of the prosecution. The trial started on January 2, 2013.
A single juror refused to vote for death. She was outed on social media and doxed before the rest of the jury had even left the court building. She closed her social media accounts when it was flooded with death threats and photos of her children. She had 24/7 police protection.
The Republic editors were insistent that we not cover the trial gavel-to-gavel. But when I saw the crowds and the scrum of national TV reporters at the courthouse for opening statements, I told the bosses that we might want to reconsider. I was there for nearly every weekday for the next five months — and would be back for another six months of the retrial in 2014 and 2015.
Twitter was just coming into its own as a social media platform, and I and the other reporters live-tweeted the trial. It was fun at first, interacting with people following the trial via feed.
Maria De La Rosa, who handled mitigation for the Arias defense team, recalls that the lead attorney, Kirk Nurmi, told her, “Don’t be alarmed, there’s going to be a little bit of media.”
There was more than a little.
“When we saw the cameras and realized it was going to be live, and all these people coming in, we thought, ‘What the hell!’” De La Rosa said.
The second defense attorney, Jennifer Willmott, said, “We were totally unprepared for the social media.”
Two of the cameras were mounted behind the judge’s bench, trained on the defense and prosecution tables and the spectators in the gallery beyond. A third camera faced the other way, focusing on the judge and whoever was in the witness box.
Many viewers were not content just to watch the trial.
I would get angry calls saying that Jodi had just taken a pill, and how was she allowed to do that? Well, she has migraines, I responded. Or complaints that “she just slipped a note to that Mexican lady, who gave it to someone in the gallery.” That was a birthday card for Arias’ mother, who was attending the trial, passed to her by Maria De La Rosa.
They would call and email De la Rosa, at first saying, “Fix your hair,” or “You’re ugly!” It got uglier.
Each day, crowds would gather at the courthouse doors, hoping to get a seat inside. The national media set up booths a block away, where they would conduct after-court interviews. It felt like a county fair.
The court groupies became more aggressive. One day at lunchtime, De La Rosa stepped outside the courthouse and came to talk when she saw me there. The groupies tauntingly started singing “La Cucaracha” and took photos of us together, which they posted on websites with names like “Fry Jodi Arias.”
De La Rosa and Willmott were followed and photographed at dinner, especially when they conferred with expert witnesses. Those photos were also posted on social media with extensive commentary.
One day, I was at Willmott’s office when she checked her answering machine.
“You don’t have to return my call,” a male voice said, “but I’m just telling you, if Jodi — if you get her off on the death penalty, we will find you. We know where you’re at, we will kill you. I told Alyce (LaViolette, an expert witness) the same thing. (…) We’re sick and tired of you defending this person, and we will get you.”
After that, when the doorbell rang at the Willmott house, her husband would answer with a gun in his pocket, she recalled.
LaViolette was a well-known psychologist. The defense hired her to talk about domestic violence against women, and she became a hot sore to Martinez’s followers. Angry viewers called the speakers’ agency that represented her to demand that they cancel her speaking engagements. They went to Amazon by the thousands to write excoriating reviews of her books.
LaViolette was so traumatized by the abuse that she checked into a hospital.
De La Rosa received emailed photographs of her backyard and of her children, sometimes juxtaposed with photos of Alexander’s dead body, with messages implying they would come for her.
The crime scene photos, along with graphic naked photos of Arias and Alexander, had been accidentally leaked to the public when a cameraman transferred them to his news agency without realizing the livestream was still live during a lunch break. The “haters,” as the pro-Arias followers called them, would make frequent use of them to intimidate trial participants.
When the defense team arrived at the courthouse every morning, they parked in secure spaces under the courthouse. Their cars were screened for bombs. When they returned to their cars at night, Willmott said, they were chaperoned by a sheriff’s deputy “with his hand on his gun all the time.”
The first Arias trial ended in a conviction for first-degree murder, but the jury hung on the death sentence, triggering a second trial that began in late 2014. The judge, Sherry Stephens, banned live TV cameras from the courtroom for the second trial, and tweeting became the only live coverage. Even without the live feed, the harassment intensified.
The so-called media pool had swelled with amateur bloggers, mostly proselytizing against Arias. Because I was one of the few professional journalists in the room, trying to cover the case fairly, I became a target. If I left court to cover a breaking story, the groupies said I was being punished by the newspaper. They said I was having romantic relationships with members of the defense team. And when my mother died during the trial, they said I had made an ass of myself at her funeral.
As many as 10 defense witnesses refused to testify because of the mob intimidation. The Arias defense contended that Alexander had been abusive to Arias on numerous occasions. Martinez denied it. To imply premeditation, Martinez argued that the murder weapon was a gun Arias stole from her grandfather’s house in California after staging a break-in (she was never charged with that burglary).
Two of the witnesses who fled rather than testify were a couple who were supposed to tell the court about walking in on Alexander when he was being abusive to Arias, about seeing pornography on a computer he used, and about going gun shopping with Alexander. Would that testimony have changed juror minds?
The second trial also ended in a hung jury, when a single juror refused to vote for death. (Arias was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of being released.) She was outed on social media and doxed before the rest of the jury had even left the court building. She closed her social media accounts when it was flooded with death threats and photos of her children, some of them with their faces photoshopped onto photos of Alexander’s dead body. Phoenix Police provided her with round-the-clock protection.
“The outpouring of anger was incredible,” said her attorney, Tom Ryan.
And now comes Trump
The Arias trial was not the last to take hold of TV and social media. Earlier this year, the Gwyneth Paltrow wrongful-injury trial in Park City, Utah, hogged the headlines. Last year, it was the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp civil trial in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Michelle Madigan, a producer for the NBC news magazine “Dateline,” covered the Arias trial and the Heard/Depp trial.
“The allegations were explosive,” she said. “They (the spectators) took sides (against one or the other celebrity). It played out over Tik-Tok.”
“I think you could look at it as what lies ahead, because people took sides.”
But a collision on the ski slopes and celebrity dirty laundry are “Leave it to Beaver” disputes compared to the trial of an ex-president charged with election interference, aired on live TV, pumped up on social media, tainted by extreme politics and the threat of violence.
We’ve already seen the January 6 insurrection and the attacks on FBI offices, the threats against the federal judge in DC assigned to Trump’s federal election-interference case. What lies ahead?
“This is going to be pyrotechnics from the get-go,” Watkiss said. But he said he believes that the prosecutors and the judge will keep the trial under control.
“Donald Trump’s trials are the most important event of our lifetime,” he said. “If we don’t try this before the cameras, it will be a disgrace.”
The personal information of the grand jurors who brought the indictments against Trump and his allies was quicklly published on right-wing websites with suggestions to harass them.
Similarly, Beth Karas, who covered Arias for Court TV, notes that most of the Trump-trial witnesses will be government officials, and one would expect them to act with decorum.
“They’re concerned about the one or two loonies,” she said.
Besides, Karas adds, Trump’s power to draw crowds to court is diminishing, at least given his failure to get protestors to his arraignments.
But what about the reaction outside the control of the courtroom? Willmott and De La Rosa are still haunted by their experience.
“The judges and lawyers are going to suffer like we did,” De La Rosa said. “People will take pictures of jurors, try to learn their names, follow people.”
“They need to watch everyone’s social media,” Willmott said. “They need to sequester the jury. They need to protect their names.”
Given the nature of some Trump supporters, she said, “They will probably do their best to influence the outcome.”
It’s already happening in Georgia.
The Georgia state legislature is hoping to impeach Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who brought the Trump conspiracy case, under a law passed just for that purpose.
Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee is investigating Willis and her indictments. His request for information was rebuffed by Willis, who responded, saying, “Your letter makes clear that you lack a basic understanding of the law, its practice, and the ethical obligations of attorneys generally and prosecutors specifically.”
Does that matter to the mobs?
On Sept. 6, Willis filed a motion asking that the names and personal information of the jurors in the upcoming trial be protected. Juror names are regularly published in Georgia. But as Willis pointed out in her motion, the personal information of the grand jurors who brought the indictments has already been published on right-wing websites with suggestions to harass them. Willis’ information was also published.
As she wrote in the motion, “Based on the (doxing) of Fulton County grand jurors and the Fulton County District Attorney, it is clearly foreseeable that trial jurors will likely be (doxed) should their names be made available to the public. If that were to happen, the effect on jurors’ ability to decide the issues before them impartially and without outside influence would undoubtedly be placed in jeopardy, both placing them in physical danger and materially affecting all of the Defendants’ constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury.”
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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