MIAMI - "A word of caution here," said the face on the TV screen, about not making your own judgements on the guilt or innocence of Ronney Zamora. Because of time limitations you are not seeing the entire proceedings. Therefore, you cannot fairly weigh all of the evidence heard by the jury."
That little word of caution probably did as much good as the "hazardous to your health" warning on a package of cigarettes. In the past two eeks, thousands of Miami TV viewers have had the chance to deliberate on the fate of Ronney Zamora, the 15-year-old charged with the first-degree murder of an elderly neighbor, at the same time the jury was hearing the case, and it's doubtful that many people who saw the trial on TV came away without an opinion.
The jurors in the courtroom - who'd asked to be allowed to see themselves on TV during the trial (request denied) - found Zamora guilty late Thursday after a surprisingly brief two hours of deliberation. In fact, the verdict was widely expected, and Zamora's attorney has naturally announced his intention to appel.
Now additional debate will follow about whether television's presence in the coutroom in any way impeded the judicial process.To someone, it may sound as if the Zamora trial were the ultimate TV game show. Clearly that's not what the Florida Supreme Court had in mind when it ordered a one-year experiment opening courtrooms to the prying eye of television. But who could have known that the first trial to be televised under the ruling would find television not only an observer but a defendant? This was a case beyond the wildest dreams of "Perry Mason," "Judd for the Defense" or "The Defenders."
"Florida Vs. Zamora" was above as well as beyond the conjectures of TV dramatists, and as the television, it was immeasurably more compelling than any TV attempt at documentary drama or fact-based fiction. It made such pseudo-realistic fare as the recent "Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald" - which was something of a disgrace anyway - look frivolous and farcical.
Defense attorney Ellis Rubin himself has been one of the trial's most loyal viewers. He was able watch the nightly taped excerpts on public TV station WPBT after his day in court."Yes, I watch it," he said last week when reached at his home. "I study it every night." Did it help him with the defense? "I can't discuss that," he said, because of a gag order imposed by Judge Paul Baker. Obviously, though, it didn't help him enough.
However valuable television proved to Rubin, he spent much of his time in the courtroom attacking it.But television was not only observer but culprit at the Zamora trial, because Rubin tried to maintain that Zamora fired the gun that killed 83-year-old Elinor Haggart on June 4 because he'd been conditioned to do so by excessive exposure to TV violence.
Witnesses testified that Zamora and a companion - to be tried separately - entered the Haggart home unarmed, found a loaded gun there, and then were surprised when Haggart returned and threatened to call the police. Zamora "had no intentions of shooting," said defense witness Dr. Michael Gilbert, and "didn't know he had pulled the trigger" until after the gun went off. Then, Zamora had told Gilbert in an interview, "he was surprised that there were no screams like he'd seen on TV, and it did not seem real."
The prosecution labeled this defense "hogwash" and "baloney" in closing summations Thursday. But Rubin established through testimony that Zamora was "a sick child," an emotionally disturbed "socio-path" who was not only more susceptible than most children to the influence of television, but watched far more - six or eight hours a day - than is average (four hours a day is considered "heavy" viewing by researchers in the field.) The personality profile of Zamora is entirely consistent with past warnings from behavioral psychologists and others about the dangers of exposing emotionally disturbed children to large doses of TV violence.
The viewer verdict - that is, the ratings - on the TV version of the trial won't be in for some time, but interest in Miami seemed high during the past two weeks. WPBT program director John Felton says that not only did the station get up to 100 phone calls a night on the coverage (most favorable, some protesting the fact that scheduled shows, including the opera "La Traviata," were not shown), but that when he pulled into a gas station one day, he found the employees embroiled in debate over legal tactics and other aspects of the case. When the trial began, lawyer Rubin was flooded with phone calls fraom strangers and advising him on courtroom manner and on which jurors to reject.
Media interest is high as well, naturally enough. WPBT has had inquiries from Dutch television, Swedish television. Canadian television and BBC, as well as from "all over the United States," according to news director Linda O'Bryond. Down one hallway and another, on the same floor as the courtroom, one could find a jumble of wires leading under a door. Inside that room were representatives of the three network news departments and local Miami TV and radio stations. Some brought their own video-cassette recorders; they plugged into a "mult-box" and tapped WPBT's feed from the courtroom.
They could take anything they wanted (playing WPBT nothing, by the way), and even thoughly they aired only selected excerpts, chosen for their dramatic value as much as their relevance to the trial (Zamora's mother crying on the witness stand was very popular), they did not broadcast any advisories warning viewers not to make judgments of their own about guilt or innocence on the basis of what they had seen.
That illustrates one of the dangers of opening a courtroom to television. WPBT's Richard Carpenter, who directed the coverage, said he tried to be "objective" about selecting shots, but noted, "The networks all wanted cutaways for their little packages, and I tried to get those done in the morning."
"Cutaways" are reaction shots that can be used to visually disguise edits made in a witness' testimony or a lawyer's remarks. WPBT didn't use any cutaways itself. The news department decided that witnesses' remarks would not be edited; an entire witness might be removed to save time, but no editing would be done of those who were put on the air.
People were on guard against a carnival aura. When Judge Baker first saw the lights the technicians wanted to use in the courtroom, he threw a fit, pronouncing them "too circussy" and forbidding them. So engineers made do with a low-light camera and a few high-powered bulbs screwed into the regular ceiling sockets.
Naturally, though, when you put anything on television, it does become a show, and though it may sound insensitive, "Florida Vs. Zamora" was not only fascinating, it was entertaining. Judge Baker was occasionally pretty amusing, rolling his eyes upward in sarcastic hauteur, chastising the prosecution and the defense as if he were their teacher at school. Once while the camera was trained on a witness, viewers could hear a funny tap-tap-tap sound. Slowly the camera panned right ot reveal the judge doing a restless pencil ballet on his desktop.
The witnesses could be heard more clearly on televsion than in court; there was no amplification of their voices in the courtroom. Then, too, sitting in the press box - next to a woman in pink slacks who said she wrote for "detective magazines" - one could miss such sights as Mrs. Zamora leaning over from the spectator's section to talk to her son during a lull in the trial.
Then again, one could miss such things in person partly because TV camera was in the way. The shot appeared on the air that night.
The participants, inevitably, became personalities, the characters in a life-and-death play. But something both visual and aural established this television program - in the mind's eye at least - as reality, not fiction, not the compromised reality of TV docu-dramas, not even the ersatz reality of edited, packaged, polished and waxed TV news.
As for Rubin's television intoxication defense, it seemed, once all the psychiatric testimony had been heard, not so far-fetched as it may sound in headlines and capsule news roundups on TV. Rubin was not allowed to enter into evidence any studies showing that emotionally disturbed children are more suggestible to television and that children predisposed toward aggressive behavior are likely to become more aggressive after viewing televised violence.
Shuch studies, exist, however, and Ronney Zamora emerged as a classic example carried to a fatal extreme.