Trial by Ire

The town is lousy with lawyers and journalists--the two professions have a sick, symbiotic relationship--and no matter how peeved the public gets, the infestation won't clear up anytime soon. Not given U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch's ruling Monday.

"The trial will proceed as scheduled," Matsch announced, in response to attorney Stephen Jones's request that Timothy McVeigh's trial either be canceled, postponed or moved to somewhere people might never have heard of his client--Mars, say. "Past experience with jurors and a general awareness of public attitudes about pretrial publicity in criminal cases strongly suggest that these stories have had neither the wide exposure nor general acceptance that the defendant's lawyers presume."

Or that the authors of those stories would like to assume.
At the same time Matsch was announcing that the Oklahoma City bombing trial will stick to its start date of March 31, a few blocks away another high-profile trial--the case against Peter Schmitz, charged with vehicular homicide in the death of journalist Greg Lopez--was taking a break. But the unofficial legal talk continued.

"I could sit on that Oklahoma jury," said one trial-watcher, a former journalist who could recite every detail of what Peter Schmitz ate (a dinner salad, not a Caesar) and drank (big beers, not four-ouncers) on the night of March 17, 1996, but could not provide a definitive detail about Timothy McVeigh.

She was lunching with people who could probably tell you exactly what year Patsy Ramsey won the Miss West Virginia contest and what food (pineapple) was found in JonBenet's stomach during her autopsy, but if their own lives depended on it couldn't give you a timeline--any timeline, much less McVeigh's timeline as reported by Playboy--for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Despite almost two years of talk and countless news stories, including the recent spate of "true confession" articles, and--most significantly--despite the peculiar accounts still spilling from Stephen Jones's mouth, the jury pool here is as pure as it ever was.

Somehow, the Oklahoma City bombing case has never caught this public's attention.

That could be because there's no sex to the bombing story (unless you count the weird "waterbed" reference in the Dallas Morning News article), and less money. No LoDo bars, no "trustifarians" going nowhere fast. There is at once not enough to engage the public interest and all too much to grasp--168 lives lost in one blow, and hundreds more injured forever. It is easier to focus on the sad end of a child beauty queen or the collision course that ended a gifted writer's life.

"There is no reason," Matsch wrote, "to believe that fair-minded persons would be so influenced by anything contained in this recent publicity that they would not be ready, willing and able to perform the duty to follow the law and decide according to the evidence presented in a vigorously contested trial."

On Wednesday, as Matsch and the lawyers began wading through that pool to find a final jury for the McVeigh trial, jurors in the Schmitz case were deliberating their verdict. (Testimony had ended Monday, on the one-year anniversary of Lopez's death; that night Schmitz returned to a few of the LoDo bars he'd partied in exactly one year before.) The jury of Schmitz's peers included three people with ponytails (two women, one man); several who brought their lunch to court each day (this detail did not escape the prosecution's notice, and so "brown-baggers" vs. paid experts became an important element of prosecutor Gerald Rafferty's closing argument); and one twist that's unlikely to reappear in the Oklahoma City case: a member who is a newspaper editor. A person who should know all too well how elusive the truth can be. A new fact, a new document, and the story takes a turn.

Although the press has taken a beating for its coverage of Tim McVeigh's case and indeed takes a beating for its coverage of almost any case, defense attorneys generally like to have reporters on their juries. Schmitz's lawyer, Walter Gerash, who'd attended Greg Lopez's funeral and told reporters he would never represent the man who killed him, had one challenge left when the business editor of the Denver Post was seated on the jury. Gerash did not challenge him.

"Jurors bring their life experiences with them when they come into the courtroom, and they are asked to use their developed and collective wisdom and common sense in making the decisions entrusted to them," Matsch said. "They sit in judgment of the results of a process that searches for historical truth, limited by procedural controls that protect against the influence of some of the frailties of human nature, including preconceived opinions."

The public vastly underestimates the importance of a free press--and vastly overestimates its power. The dailies keep running stories about how difficult it will be to pick an unbiased jury--but the prospective Oklahoma City bombing jurors keep forgetting to read those stories and so do not realize they are irreparably tainted.

The local media, and even several national outlets, devoted considerable coverage to the death of Greg Lopez--one of their own--and still Peter Schmitz got a more than fair trial.

The real power of the press is the talent that Greg Lopez had, a rare talent that still shines in What's Going On?, the collection of his newspaper columns. The power not to influence an event's outcome but to illuminate it. The power to look at a whole sorry story--wasted opportunities, wasted time, wasted lives--and to see something worth sharing.

Words to live by.
"Crimes are prosecuted publicly," Matsch wrote. "The Constitution commands it. A free and unfettered press is essential to the proper functioning of all democratic institutions, including the people's courts."

The press itself will be on trial March 23, when the Rocky Mountain Media Watch--a self-appointed media-watchdog group--holds its "Stop the Ramsey Media Frenzy" rally outside the Boulder County Courthouse to protest the "overdose" of news coverage on JonBenet Ramsey's murder. Except that JonBenet's name does not appear anywhere in the announcement of the event, and it is not supposed to appear at the rally, either. Rather, "Citizens are encouraged to bring signs showing what they think of the news media--without referring to the child. Organizers want to keep the focus on the news media."

In other words, kill the messenger...even though the messenger did not kill JonBenet Ramsey.

"Journalists often act like addicts when money, murder and sex are combined," says RMMW executive director Paul Klite. "What results is a media binge."

He's conveniently overlooking the fact that the public does its own ordering from media menus. If people don't want to watch another Ramsey story, they can change the channel to something more weighty--to a report on the Oklahoma City bombing trial, for example. But few do. If they don't want to read another Ramsey story, they can buy something more substantial at the supermarket--there are many, many more good-for-you items cooked up by the media every day. But judging by sales of the Globe, few do.

Last week, yet another art critic replaced the "Daddy's Little Hooker" headline on that overexposed CU student's piece with a scrawled: "The media: America's hooker."

There's only one reason prostitutes stay in business, though: People want their services. So where does the sinning begin?

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun