Despite advocates’ calls to reform the “broken criminal legal system,” it seems very much intact on screen. From Johnny Depp to Gwyneth Paltrow, recent media frenzies over celebrity trials present courtrooms which bear few similarities to those experienced by millions of regular Americans pushed through our judicial system on a daily basis.
A staggering number of Americans interact with the criminal justice system each year, and around 600,000 of them enter the gates of our nation’s prisons annually. Alarmingly, even though estimates suggest that somewhere between 4 and 6 percent of all incarcerated people are actually innocent, only around 150–160 individuals are exonerated in a given year, indicating that our justice system may not really be so just. Part of the problem is that everyday Americans lack the resources or knowledge to navigate the obtuse American legal system. This is only exacerbated by the unrealistic portrayal of courts often found in celebrity trials—nearly 30 million people tuned in to watch Gwyneth Paltrow’s day in court and dissected her “stealth wealth courtroom style.” Our society should divert its focus away from high-profile trials and toward the challenges our legal system poses for regular Americans.
For decades, advocates, jurists, and legislators have argued over media presence in court rooms, specifically regarding camera use. After Bruno Hauptmann was found guilty in the 1935 Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping trial, he appealed the conviction on the grounds that heavy camera usage and media presence obstructed his ability to receive a fair trial. While his appeal got rejected, the American Bar Association amended its Canon of Judicial Ethics to forbid television, photographic, and all other forms of broadcast coverage of trials. Furthermore, the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 became law in 1946, banning photography or broadcasting of judicial proceedings unless under court order. At the time, lawmakers worried that the bright flashes, large equipment, and excessive personnel necessary for members of the media to report from the courtroom were distracting for witnesses, jurors, and all other members of the trial.
Eventually in the 1960s, courts in Texas began to ignore these bans and granted judges discretion over camera use in their courtrooms, leading to national coverage of numerous high-profile cases. However, after the Supreme Court overturned Texas financier Billie Sol Estes’ swindling conviction due to heavy media presence corrupting the integrity of the trial, many judges grew wary of allowing broadcasters in their courtrooms.
Yet by 1981, the tides had turned again, this time in favor of media in the courtrooms. After the Supreme Court’s Chandler v. Florida (1981) decision clarified that states were not required to ban cameras in court, several circuits, states, and districts across the country implemented pilot programs for audio and visual broadcasting of trials. There is still yet to be any national policy articulating clear decorum on the broadcasting of trials, though some members of Congress are fighting to mandate television coverage unless a majority of trial members vote against it. The lack of federal courtroom media restrictions has allowed extensive broadcasting of numerous high-profile cases, ranging from the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995 to Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski trial in 2023, not just in verbal accounts but in real-time video coverage.
Supporters of the inclusion of a wider national audience in specific court cases argue media coverage is a useful mechanism for educating people about the judicial process and increasing pressure on courts to function properly. Without widespread attention toward these cases, some people fear biased judges and juries would go unchecked, helpful evidence may go undiscovered, and larger issues within the society raised by such cases would continue to be ignored. On a constitutional level, proponents also argue that the First Amendment’s freedom of the press means media coverage of public trials should be allowed. These individuals believe the public has a right to know about what is happening within their courts, given that they may face a trial at some point, too.
However, broadcasting these trials for educational purposes is misleading: They are hardly representative of the larger American justice system, since a plaintiff or defendant’s celebrity status may improperly impact the court decision in their case. Cameras may make witnesses feel intimidated by having so many eyes on them, and lawyers may feel a greater necessity to grandstand for attention, which distracts from the actual nuances of the case. Furthermore, judges and juries may feel greater pressure to deliver a decision that is favorable to the public but not necessarily representative of the evidence presented.
While famous people are likely to attract attention to a trial regardless of whether it is broadcasted on television or not, our world is increasingly dependent on visual media as its primary mode of gaining information. Not only is broadcast media highly digestible and attractive, it also uniquely allows for a focus on aesthetics such as fashion and facial expressions, topics which divert conversations away from the true facts of the case.
While millions of attentive eyes may impose pressure upon a courtroom, assuming it increases the integrity of decisions is a far reach. The audience does not necessarily want the truth; often, they want a desired outcome to vindicate their beliefs, or they just want maximal drama. What we as a general public without legal training may think is “justice” in one of these heavily broadcasted cases could vary greatly from justice as outlined in our laws.
The purported benefit of increasing awareness on judicial system functions requires that publicized cases actually exemplify the average life cycle of a court case. Yet rarely is this the case. First, nearly all criminal cases are settled by plea deals, and the overwhelming majority of civil cases are also settled before trial. Many innocent individuals end up accepting plea deals out of fear that a trial could still find them guilty and sentence them even harsher. Given how overworked public defenders are in the United States, these defendants have valid reason to think so. Further, many of these attorneys push their clients to take plea deals to make their own ability to handle a high volume of clients easier. Frankly, the average American would be best served learning how these types of negotiations are handled, rather than listening to Gwyneth Paltrow answer questions about her height and relationship with Taylor Swift during cross examination. It would probably be better to focus society’s attention on how we can better support public defense offices rather than memeing a retired optometrist with brain injuries.
And even if people should be aware of how a trial plays out, these often frivolous cases are not the right ones to watch. The crimes and grievances being brought before the court are incredibly rare compared to the 1.16 million people who are arrested for drug crimes in the US every year, for example. And in situations that are commonplace, such as divorce, these cases look very different for multi-millionaires like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard than they do for the average American couple. Their wealth and privilege lends these celebrities to wholly different lifestyles than the rest of society, and it also grants them far greater resources to handle the legal system with an ease that is not afforded to most defendants.
Overall, these media spectacles are just not what a court case in the United States looks like. For the people most at-risk of interacting with our judicial system, particularly those who live in overpoliced areas, celebrity trials are actively distracting the rest of society from the realities of their neighborhoods. Most individuals who end up in court are not wealthy, white celebrities with expensive attorneys. Most people do not even end up going to trial. And when they do, public and jury opinion is often far less empathetic or forgiving. Our judicial system commits violence against millions of incarcerated individuals who are either wrongfully convicted, sentenced too severely, or condemned as victims of over-policing and antiquated laws. Too often, everyday Americans are unprepared to navigate the complexities of this broken system. To finally put our courts on trial, we have to turn our attention towards the most marginalized victims of judicial violence and away from celebrities looking for their next buzz of attention.