In the immediate aftermath of the Jodi Arias capital murder trial Guilty verdict, spectators outside the Phoenix courthouse who made up the banner-bearing “mob” – ironically, Nancy Grace’s term, repeated in her HLN commentary at least 3 times immediately before the verdict – remarked that their faith in the criminal justice system had been restored.
Restored from what? And to what? One Guilty verdict, assuming it is not 100% wrongful, has no significant impact, positive or otherwise, on the integrity of the criminal justice system. That people should be attributing such importance to one obscenely media-hyped case, a case that but for the arbitrary prominence that the media ascribed to it is no different from myriads of cases in the US, is truly disturbing. It speaks loudly about the general public’s distorted notions of what constitute significant news events, and how their perceptions have been grossly warped by the media.
What these misguided trial groupies really mean is “This is just compensation for Casey Anthony.” Two years ago, when Anthony was acquitted in Florida in her capital murder trial, the reaction was exactly the same: the verdict was received as extremely significant in the vast machine that is the US criminal justice system, but for a different reason, the opposite reason - that it made people “lose faith” in the criminal justice system. Just as now, this reaction was wrong-headed in the extreme. Apart from the fact that the outcome was unremarkable given the real evidence - not the irrelevant litany of smut and ridiculous conjecture propagated by the tabloid media and swallowed as gospel fact by every perimenopausal woman watching cable TV – it broke no legal precedents nor established any new guidelines as to procedures of judicial practice.
Do any of those whooping, whistling and air-punching punters congregated outside the Maricopa County courthouse have any idea what is actually happening in the criminal justice system, how it is being tainted by prosecutors, judges and law enforcement departments being so aware of today’s media scrutiny and reporting of their minutest decisions and performance styles that they are either overly-concerned with not arousing public disapproval, or motivated by a lust for fame and resultant promotion or political advancement? These tendencies have intensified over the past thirty years because of government and media exaggeration about increases in crime rates, and the accompanying misinformation that society has become “soft on crime”. The criminal justice system has been falling over itself to convince the public that more criminals are being swept off the streets and that the incentives to commit crime are being greatly diminished by harsher sentences. The fact that the latter correlation is not borne out by statistics does nothing to assuage the impetus towards putting more people in prison for lesser crimes and for longer terms.
How many of those on the courthouse plaza, chanting “Justice for Travis!” in unison after the verdict was announced, understand that “justice for all” is being greatly undermined by a lucrative private prison industry insinuating itself into state budgets, with states guaranteeing private prison corporations full capacity for periods as long as twenty years, so that US incarceration rates are outrageously high, and sentences disproportionately long compared to other countries? The US incarcerates six times more people than the world average, with 25% of the world’s prison population situated in the US even though America constitutes only 5% of the world’s population. The motivation to put people in prison in the US now has less to do with making society safer than it has with lining the pockets of private prison executives. This situation began to take hold in the late 70’s and early 80’s, since when there has been a dramatically steep climb in the numbers of prisoners in the US, as well as a drastic lengthening of prison terms.
These two broad effects, media scrutiny of the criminal justice system and the move towards increasing numbers of private prisons, in turn affect the minutiae of criminal proceedings, corrupting the processes of arrest, charging, collection of evidence and trial. Such conditions increase the incentives to plant evidence or use coercive and even illegal interrogation methods on the part of law enforcement, for police officers to lie in court, for prosecutors to hide evidence, influence witnesses’ testimony, and overcharge crimes, and for judges to collude with prosecutors, all with the aim of assuring convictions and obtaining the longest sentences because the imperatives and the rewards are so great.
And putting the icing on the judicial cake is the increasingly widening and insidious contamination of any impending or future jury pool by a tabloid media that peddles simplistic, boiled-down fairy tales with good and evil archetypes, urging their audience to cheer and fawn at the heroes and heroines, and hiss and boo at the monsters and witches as in some tawdry, childish English pantomime. Murder trials have become a form of immature escapism onto which people project their personal insecurities and prejudices, attaching their anonymous and perhaps unacknowledged private anger and frustration - that in reality comes from their own lives - to a publicly embraced cause célèbre Like children who appropriately play and fantasize through their fears, anxieties and confusions in order to integrate them, these adults are inappropriately playing out emotions that would be better expressed and employed in their personal lives, not through the media-mythologized personal tragedies and misdemeanours of other heretofore anonymous individuals with whom they have no meaningful connection. Unlike for children, where imagining and role-playing in stories helps them to think, develop, mature and separate fantasy from reality, for adults, such misdirected and excessive investment of one’s negative psychic energy in media-distorted stories only serves to stunt emotional flexibility and grossly limit understanding of the complexities of human nature.
The public has been brainwashed into thinking that the criminal justice system does not do enough to punish offenders, so it is necessary for the media to take over and prosecute them in collaboration with the public. Members of the public are cajoled into thinking that each one of them is individually important, not only in making sure the defendant is punished – before he or she is tried, as well as after, but also in “supporting” the victim’s family and friends. Suddenly, anonymous individuals all over the country experience the adrenaline rush of feeling significant, that they can “be there for the family” and make sure the defendant gets his or her “just deserts”: character assassination, humiliation, ridicule, sexual exposure, negative interpretation of everything they have ever done in their life, from removing a cardigan to having the gall to be born with odd-looking eyes.
Such public prosecution by the masses is absolutely necessary and justified because years of detention before trial, separation from friends and family, loss of income, undergoing police investigation and public parading in a courtroom are not sufficient to expose and punish a person while they are supposedly not yet determined to be guilty. A person must be destroyed before they get to trial, just in case they “get off”, and to make sure that as many people know about their awfulness as possible so that hopefully, the jury members will know what the “facts” are and make the “right” decision. The public is complicit with media networks that saturate the airwaves and cyberspace with details about the defendant, however unsubstantiated, particularly during a trial, so that jurors who go home at night are unlikely to avoid “inadvertently” hearing or seeing something that has “need-to-know” value. Even sequestered juries get family visits, and who knows when a hushed, private moment might not be advantageous for a little “updating” about what “everyone” thinks……….and expects. And if the defendant is acquitted because the jury is a bunch of “village idiots”, there will be the satisfaction of knowing that they can never live safely again in society. Lest they forget and need a reminder of their correctional-officer-substitute status, along with a boost of hate-serum, the public can rely on HLN to nudge them periodically with references to “what happened in Florida” and nostalgic montages of highlights from trials past, or clips from incriminating interviews of the defendant.
But these inconvenient, intrusive and complicated matters don’t concern Mary-Lou, the fine upstanding middle-aged citizen in shorts and T-shirt, milling on the courthouse plaza with her new trial-following buddies who she “met” on the In Session chat-room. They hover as near to Jane-Velez Mitchell and her padded microphone as possible, watching in hushed reverence as she interviews one of the ubiquitous Hughes clan, the leaders of the “close friends of Travis” – as well as the public Travis Alexander adoration cult - who have insinuated themselves, their flimsy feeling stories and subjectively interpretable video clips onto every show during HLN prime time. David Hughes declares vehemently, to the obediently-nodding affirmations of the devotees, that when the verdict was read Jodi had “no emotion” and that she was “smirking” at the jury as each one confirmed their decision. When Mary-Lou gets home and watches the verdict-reading and Jodi’s close-up on TV she will choose not to notice Jodi’s open-mouthed gasp on hearing “Guilty”, nor see her tear-welled eyes, lip-biting and quivering chin, glancing frightened and questioning at each juror in turn as they repeat “Yes.” Jodi is a monster - HLN and the Hughes have taught Mary-Lou that, so she is blind to Jodi’s nonexistent human reaction.
What is important is that Mary-Lou and her friends get a chance to declare their elation and allegiance to Travis’ family on camera - supporting this innately unremarkable group of victimized, bereaved but glamorized strangers with whom they have no connection whatsoever except via the unctuous tones of “Dr” Drew coaxing them to share their good vibes and despising ridicule of Jodi through their flat-screen TVs. They were so afraid they were going to get another “Casey Anthony”! Justice has finally “unfolded”…….. for Travis!
Any one of these “Justice for Travis” faithful could find themselves one day on the wrong side of the law, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps fitting the criteria or profile of a certain demographic group and be subjected to police corruption, deprivation of rights and distortion of interrogation-room statements. If they end up at trial they will be no more immune to media exposure and humiliation than the mugs who end up daily on Nancy Grace’s Facebook page for humping a sofa on the street because they forgot to take their meds, getting a bit sloshed while celebrating their son’s 19th birthday with him at the bar, or turning a blind eye to their daughter smoking a joint with her friends in the basement – with the music turned up a bit too loud.
These naïve and jubilant citizens are clinging to their misguided notion that the Jodi Arias Guilty verdict is a victory for the country, rather than what it really is: a common and banal, though gruesome story of interpersonal violence turned deadly, transformed into a carefully orchestrated and manufactured fake media epic, manipulating the masses and raking in billions in ratings-generated ad revenue. Until now commitment phobia, porkie-pie telling and the penetrability of doggy doors have not been social problems that anyone has marched on Capitol Hill about, but somehow these issues have gained more priority in the minds of a segment of the population than some very real threats to societal order and civility and to fair and due process.
The Jodi Arias murder trial is very significant, but not for the development or improvement of the criminal justice system. Nothing in the criminal justice system has been restored or edified. This trial has been significant only for its embodiment and encapsulation of a sick form of brainwashing and media-requisitioning, for its sucking of thousands of duped television and social media followers into a vortex of excessive and misdirected sympathy and emotion, and for its creativity in distorting and making up stories that evolve into unsubstantiated urban legends gracing every checkout magazine rack. Yes, this trial has been a landmark - in perpetuating the ongoing contamination and insidious destruction of the American criminal justice system. Mary-Lou and her friends have made their small but important contribution to this endeavour.
Perhaps this inane and dangerous syndrome can be succinctly summed up in a Twitter reply I received, just after the verdict, to a tweet I had posted a month before. I had responded to someone who was dismissing the effects of the tabloid media, and the person bided their time till they could throw a triumphant retort in my “face”:
Pitchforks (April 9th): “That type of nonjournalism DOES matter in that taints future jury pools & incites general Pitchfork mentality against due process”
Reply (May 8th): “ha...guess it won't matter now for that murdering nutbag Jodi Arias...hahahaha”
So while Lou Ann and her internet trial-sisters hug and shed tears of joy, clutching their battered and dog-eared “Justice for Travis” posters, their rights and freedoms are trickling quietly down the drain, and maybe their young adult son has been stopped by the police while driving to get a pizza and is now sitting in a windowless room being yelled at by a police officer while another one tells him calmly they have a lot of evidence against him…. He is coming close to signing a false confession, just so he can get out of there and get an aspirin for his thundering headache. He doesn’t know that he could have left hours ago, he doesn’t know that innocent people need to do that thing that Nancy Grace condemns as suspicious - “lawyer up”……… he doesn’t know what his rights are, but he just needs to get out of there and home to mom, so at this point………..
But wait, we can’t go home yet – Jane Velez-Mitchell is coming our way, microphone thrusting, and she wants to know how we feel about the verdict! The answer is obvious, we have been well trained:
Justice has unfolded! Justice for Travis!!!
Pitchforks can be found at babelbooth.com, followed on Twitter @PitchforksPosts and on Blog Talk Radio at Routing Out, and be sure to like the facebook page.