If Ronney Zamora's lawyer has his way, Zamora will become the first person in history to be found not guilty of murder by reason of television.
Psychiatrist Michael Gilbert, a key defense witness, told the jury yesterday that for 15-year-old Zamora, "the pulling of the trigger was in effect a conditioned response, brought on by his 'habituation' to television and his fondness for viewing violent crime shows like "Kojak."
Zamora's addiction to television started early in life. Gilbert said - long before he was indicted, along with another youth, in the fatal shooting of an [WORD ILLEGIBLE]-year-old woman neighbor. "It almost became a way of life for him. It replaced the spoon-feeding and the pacifier, as it were, of a child. In his later life, the choice of programming centered on violent horror stories and things like that."
Even as Gilbert spoke of TV and TV violence, a TV camera in Dade County circuit court was watching him. The first trial of television has also become the first trial on television, at least in Florida. A state supreme court ruling has opened the courtrooms to TV cameras for an experimental one-year period.
The single stationary camera was placed in the courtroom - three seats in the press gallery were labelled "Reserved TV Camera" - by public TV station WPBT, which airs about three hours of taped trial highlights each night.
Station program director John Felton says the coverage is costing the station about $3,000 a day, but that so far around 800 phone calls have been received at the station and 97 percent of them are favorable to the coverage. Felton estimates that more than 80,000 Miami households see part of the trial each night.
Late Tuesday, ironically or not, one hour of WPBT's Zamora trial was in direct competition with a CBS network rerun of "Kojak," the very program specifically cited in court as one of Zamora's favorites.
Actor Telly Savalas, who plays the tough, bald cop on [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] even been served with a subpoena by defense attorney Ellis Rubin and was about to leave Hollywood for Miami yesterday when Rubin released him as a witness. Judge Paul Baker had repeatedly rejected Rubin's attempts to make TV violence an issue in the trial, and it was unlikely that Savalas would be allowed to testify anyway.
And yet "Kojak" did come up in testimony. Psychiatrist Gilbert said that an episode of Kojak flashed through Zamora's mind after the gun went off and Haggart fell to the floor.
"Kojak was his hero," Gilbert said. "His mother told us that he even wanted his stepfather to shave his head like Kojak's."
During all of the psychiatric testimony, Zamora was absent from the courtroom at Rubin's request. He was present only at the start of yesterday's long session, his dark eyebrows usually in a position that suggested fear or puzzlement, although the expression on his face remained one of indifference.
He probably does not realize that he represents the fulfillment of dire predictions by sociologists, psychiatrists, and the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] foes of TV violence. The defense has depicted him as a socially deprived, love-starved child who escaped from depressing reality into the fantasy world of television and became himself the victim of its excessive violence and emphasis on stories of crime and criminals.
According to the picture painted by his lawyer, the young man is the first martyr to television.
Zamora is also a hypothesis come true: According to testimony, he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the very kind of unfeeling, uncomprehending, television-dominated child described in abstract terms in such books as "The Plug-in Drug," by Marie Winn and in such research into effects of TV violence as that done by Dr. George Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania.
In other words, if Ronney Zamora is found innocent, television will have been found guilty.
Because it is rife with all these ramifications, the trial is getting heavy media coverage, not only in Miami but nationally, Tuesday night's "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," devoted about five minutes to the trial, using taped excerpts of Zamora's mother, Yolanda, on the stand, as provided by WPBT. Mrs. Zamora wept as she described her son as a hopeless lad who "felt that there was nothing else to do but kill himself and spent long hours in front of the television set without talking.
And yet television, whatever its guilt in this case, also has the role of bringing the trial itself into thousands of Miami homes. Local newspaper coverage has been distinctly non-sensationalistic; this might be because, for the first time, Miamians are able to see what a trial is like for themselves in their own living rooms.
The only still photographer allowed in the court room is from The Miami News. The Miami News is advertised around town on vending machines as "the newspaper for people who watch television."
A carnival atmosphere predicted by some does not exist in the courtroom, but there are more spectators on hand than the court can hold (they wait in the hall behind a rope for empty seats) and at least one young spectator said to a friend upon leaving the courtroom yesterday, "Hey - I was on television."
On Tuesday, the last piece of business conducted from the bench by Judge Baker - who has a wry, rumpied style that suggests a chubby David Brinkley - was to deny the jury's plea that they be allowed to watch the trial on TV, too.
"I have received the request of the jury to watch themselves on television with the sound turned off," said Baker. "They said they just want to see what they look like on TV. But I cannot grant that request during the trial." Some of the jurors moped in disappointment.
Although witnesses are not allowed in court while other witnesses are testifying the judge has not forbidden - only discouraged - them from watching the trial on TV when they get home at night. Some witnesses yesterday made veiled references to previous testimony they could only have seen on TV.
The TV camera sits in the front of the press box with one man operating it and another standing by. The camera is rarely referred to during the proceeding, and then only indirectly. When Rubin and Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Headley seemed to be ignoring a ruling he'd made on an objection, Judge Baker grumped, "I only have a small role in this production."
Whether attorneys and witnesses are performing for the camera no one can say for sure, but it doesn't look that way. Known for his courtroom flamboyance, Rubin pounded his fist dramatically on a table to drive home a point Tuesday, but this seemed to be for the jury's sake and not for the entertainment of viewers whose previous exposure to courtroom activity on TV has largely been limited to reruns of "Perry Mason."
Richard Carpenter, director of the telecast for WPGT, says, "We try to be as objective as possible" in choosing what and whom to shoot during the trial. When Zamora's mother began to weep during her testimony and turned to one side with her hand covering her face, was she avoiding the spectators or the TV camera? "Probably both," said the cameraman.
"I wish we had more cameras," Carpenter said, but only one TV camera is allowed. The camera remains trained on the witness box and the judge most of the time: but it will occasionally pan left, along the green marble walls to show the jury in its box, and pan right, to show the spectators and, if he is in the courtroom, Zamora himself.
In pre-trial conferences, Rubin was forbidded from making TV violence the issue of the trial. But it has remained central to his defense of Zamora. After repeated attempts to introduce testimony about the effects of TV violence on children - and having the prosecution object, and the judge sustain the objection - Rubin exclaimed, "Your Honor, involuntary television intoxication is a new defense, but so was insanity at one time a new defense."
Zamora's plea is innocent by reason of insanity. Rubin has to prove him insane at the time of the crime according to the accepted Florida definition - that the youth did not know right from wrong when the shooting occurred and that he was not aware of the nature and consequences of the act. Through Gilbert's testimony, Rubin tried to show that Zamora's concepts of right and wrong were distorted by excessive lifelong exposure to television and that he was unaware of the consequences of his act because for him pulling the trigger was a Pavlovian response conditioned by watching violence on TV.
"This boy had been exposed to thousands and thousands of situations where he has seen 'When you're threatened - bang, shoot." - Gilbert said. "This is an emotionally disturbed child who never held a gun in his hand before but who was conditioned that the proper thing to do is shoot it."
Others have testified that Zamora and another youth, who was also indicted and will be tried separate, were not armed when they entered the home of Elinor Haggart but that a loaded gun was discovered on the premises. When Haggart surprised the boys in the act of robbing her home, the shooting occurred, according to testimony.
The television industry already has been shaken by anti-violence crusaders, congressional investigation, and public-opinion polls about violence on the air. Some measure of reform is apparent in new programs on prime time this season, but old programs with old violence standards continue to air late at night. Some local stations may be showing violent programs from years passed at virtually any hour of the day. Television is still not and perhaps never will be free of violence. This is the first time that TV violence has specifically been held responsible in a court of law for an act of violence in real life. It is impossible to estimate the effects on television that this case could have.
Whatever happens to Zamora now, the novelty of Rubin's defense seems a cinch to make the case a landmark in legal history. Depending on the outcome, it may also become a landmark in television history as well. In Miami, it already is.