There's been high drama in courtrooms lately, and a pattern has emerged: the more important the case, the less attention the proceedings get. It all depends on where the trial is held, and whether cameras are present.
People started taking sides over fatal fight between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin the moment Al Sharpton showed up in Stanford, Fla. There was reason for the "million hoodie marches": An unarmed teenager was dead and the guy who killed him hadn't been arrested, because of an extreme state "stand your ground" law.
That made it worthy of public discussion, and the politicians and media outlets that profit from controversy were all too happy to make the story about race.
But the trial — if not the commentary — isn't about race or politics. Two guys got into an unnecessary fight on a rainy night and one ended up dead. Witnesses disagree about who was more at fault and no one — except maybe Zimmerman — knows exactly what happened. Florida law governing self-defense is subject to interpretation. Reasonable doubt may prove a high bar.
Which makes it like a lot of other tragedies that land in state courts. It's more entertaining than important - and America has been riveted.
In Boston, the trial of James "Whitey" Bulger has been riveting as well. Its cast of characters comes right out of a gangster movie — Jack Nicholson plays a character based on Bulger in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" — and enough murders for several seasons of CSI.
And this drama has great dialog. Testifying for the prosecution last Tuesday, ex-henchman Kevin Weeks said "we killed people that were rats, and I had the two biggest rats right next to me."
"You suck," Bulger said from his seat at the defense table.
"(Expletive) you, OK?" Weeks shouted back.
"(Expletive) you too," Bulger responded.
You can't make this stuff up. And you can't watch it on TV.
So while the Zimmerman trial has grabbed the national spotlight, the Bulger trial is still mostly a local story. That's a shame, because the Bulger trial is more interesting and important. It involves a long-running criminal enterprise, a much larger body count — Bulger is charged with 19 murders — and one of the worst corruption scandals in the history of the FBI.
The trial of George Zimmerman was conducted in a Florida state courthouse, where gavel-to-gavel video is available. Cable networks jump the free footage, surrounding it with provocative commentary to make it seem more important than it is.
The Bulger trial is playing out in the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, where cameras aren't allowed past the front door. The handsome building on Fan Pier has seen other important trials — including House Speaker Sal DiMasi, accused terrorist propagandist Terek Mehanna, and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid — and will be the scene of the trial of accused Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Page 2 of 2 - But you'd better get in line early if you wish to watch the wheels of justice turn. If you can't be there in person, you've got to count on print reporters and sketch artists.
Then there are the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court, which offer great theater, civics lessons and history unfolding before your very eyes. But only the eyes of the 400 people who can fit in the ornate courtroom across the street from the Capitol. How much richer our civic discussion would be, how much deeper the public understanding of the law and the Constitution, if this year's Supreme Court's arguments over the Defense Of Marriage Act or affirmative action had been given half the attention lavished on the conflicting accounts of witnesses in the Zimmerman trial.
The arguments against cameras in the courtroom are familiar and not without merit. Justice Antonin Scalia, a vocal opponent of allowing TV cameras into the Supreme Court, says such coverage would "miseducate" the people because 15-second excerpts would be aired over and over, while less gripping arguments are ignored.
Scalia's argument is typically arrogant and fundamentally undemocratic: The people can't be trusted to understand the actions of their leaders, so it's better to engage them as little as possible.
I'd rather err on the other side. Let the people witness the administration of justice in all the courtrooms and let them decide what trials to watch, what lessons to learn and, yes, who to root for. After all, they are the ones paying the bills, and the ones in whose name justice is done.