It may have been the ultimate irony that Miami's ABC-TV affiliate interrupted an episode of "Police Story" Thursday night for live coverage of the guilty verdict in the "TV insanity" trial of Ronney Zamora.
"Police Story" was one of Zamora's favorite programs, figuring in [WORD ILLEGIBLE ] in the mix of crime-show fare that this 15-year-old boy devoured. It was a visual diet, the defense claimed, that he involuntarily pulled the trigger of Elinor Haggart's gun last June 4 and shot her dead. The prosecution called the claim "utter nonsense."
A jury of nine men and three women deliberated for two hours Thursday night and then refused to accept the defense version of a few seconds' worth of insanity. And so the panel returned guilty verdicts of all four counts in the indictment - irst-degree murder, burglary, robbery and possession of a fireman while committing a felony.
"We just did not believe he was insane," juror Irving Winer said afterward.
And so, defense attorney Ellis Rubin lost his chance to create a legal precedent. Rubin said, however, that the setack was temporary. He said he plans to appeal, citing Judge Baker's refusal to admit evidence or testimony on how television influences children.
The Dade County circuit court judge insisted that Rubin limit himself to television's effect on Zamora specifically. It was for that reason that Rubin ultimately released TV actor Telly Savalas, the star of "Kojak," from a subpoena, Savalas had never met Zamora.
"It's unfortunate that the judge took the heart out of my defense," Rubin lamented in a courtroom corridor, where reporters and cameras surrounded him.
Rubin, who has handled a number of controversial and widely publicized cases, said he was confident that an appellate court would overturn the verdict, thereby creating "a new frontier in American jurisprudence."
Zamora stood expressionless through the reading of the four consecutive verdicts, first bowing his head, then staring forward. At the end, he exchanged kisses with his mother, Yolanda Zamora, who, in moving testimony, had described Ronney's unhappy home life and his development into a television addict, watching for six to seven hours a night and being spoon-fed in front of the TV set.
Judge Baker ordered a pre-sentence investigation and set sentencing for Nov. 7, Zamora faces a life term on the murder conviction, with a mandatory 25 years before parole. The prosecution announced early in the trial that it was not seeking the death penalty, apparently to ease the jurors' consciences about possibly sending a 15-year-old boy to the electric chair.
The jury's decisions, after a nine-day trial, also marked the end of an unprecedented exercise in television coverage. Florida three months ago became the first state to allow cameras in courtrooms as a matter of right, without the need for permission of trial participants.
Brief coverage of other trials had occurred since the one-year experiment began July 5, but in this case Miami's public television station, WPBT, offered the first extensive courtroom coverage, showing excerpts two to five hours nightly.
Under the guidelines, no more than one TV camera and one still camera, both in fixed positions, were in the courtroom at any time. The still camera position was rotated among several news organizations, with all photograph shared equally. The public TV station pooled its coverage to other stations and networks, which had set up videotaping facilities in a room near the judge's chambers.
It appeared that the trial ultimately turned on two factors - Zamor's purported confessions which were described by police witnesses, and a complex of sometimes contradictory testimony from psychiatrists.
The key defense witness, Dr. Michael Gilbert, a forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Zamora, maintained that when the boy fired Haggart's own gun during a burglary of her house, he was reacting to a TV-induced "conditioned reflex" and "didn't know he was pulling the trigger."
Gilbert said that Zamora was sane before he pulled the trigger and immediately after he did so, but at the moment of firing he had lapsed into a condition of legal insanity - that is, not knowing right from wrong or understanding the nature and consequences of his act.
What triggered this alleged reflex, Gilbert said, was Haggart's statement that she was going to call the police.
Three psychiatrists called by the prosecution to rebut Gilbert's testimony said they knew of no cases of insanity, lasting for only a few seconds. Dr. Charles Mutter said of Gilbert's conditioned-reflex theory, "That wouldn't make sense." The jury agreed.