This month saw the end of another murder trial that was covered by the news media as if it were of vast national importance. I’ve always puzzled over how this case and not that one is chosen for close and continuing scrutiny, and I’ve concluded it is the same phenomenon that causes the goldfish to erupt in a feeding frenzy over this flake of fish food and not that one.
Some crimes, though, have an aspect that does suggest that they will and perhaps should be covered extensively, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that no one is too rich or famous to be above the law (or that some are so rich and famous as to be above the law).
They come to mind: the O.J. Simpson case, of course, and Martha Stewart; the Rhode Island society trial of Klaus von Bulow on charges that he had tried to kill his wife. This kind of thing has been around for as long as there have been media to cover it. Every few years there’s a brand new “trial of the century,” going right back to the first decade of the last century, when Harry Thaw shot the architect Stanford White to death on the roof at the old Madison Square Garden. White had been a little too friendly with Thaw’s wife, the “actress” Evelyn Nesbitt. Thaw was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity.
These trials feed, too, our prurient interest, and a history of movies, plays, books, and television programs stands as proof that crime and punishment always fascinate.
Nor have I any right to criticize this. My own modest career benefited greatly from a “trial of the century.”
The defendant was Jean Harris, headmistress of the posh Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, who on March 10, 1980, had shot her paramour, Dr. Herman Tarnower, four times, killing him. Harris was notable because her suburban Washington school educated many Congressional children. Tarnower was famous because he had written a best-selling diet book. Harris was charged with second-degree murder (in New York, first-degree murder is very narrowly defined, and rare). The trial was a circus.
It lasted 14 weeks, not counting the more than two weeks the jury deliberated.
I had just started work as a writer and editor at WOR Radio in New York. My work week was Wednesday through Friday. The trial took place in White Plains, where I lived. So on my two days off I went to the courthouse, watched, and phoned in updates. (Never up for feeding frenzies, WOR did not have anyone assigned to the trial.) Soon, during the days I was at work, my girlfriend went to the trial, and phoned me with the latest.
After a couple weeks of this, my news director, the great Reg Laite, assigned me to the trial full-time and, more significant, said I was cleared to go on the air. This was a very big deal — newswriters normally faced a huge obstacle in making the leap to having their voices on the radio.
It was a great assignment. But then the case went to the jury. Day after day the jurors filed in, deliberated, and filed out without reaching a verdict. The crowd of media folk grew and grew. Jimmy Breslin was there. A little baby Meredith Vieira, just started at Channel 2 in New York, was there. If memory serves, Brian Williams, then also from Channel 2, was there. Geraldo Rivera was there, of course. The networks were there. “Nightline” devoted programs to the trial, and this was back when people watched “Nightline.” National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg was there, and before it was all over, “All Things Considered” broadcast its entire show from the lobby of the Westchester County Courthouse.
The media crowd grew but, with the jury out, there was no news: more and more people with less and less to say. The first few days we all reported on how there was no verdict yet. Then we reported on what the lawyers had to say (which was nothing) about the meaning of the extended deliberations. Then we reported on each other — what reporters were doing to pass the time.
The middle of the second week, an enterprising reporter had some teeshirts made up, which he sold. On the front they said, “Intent?” and on the back, “Free the Tarnower Press Corps!” (The defense had offered the theory that Harris meant to kill herself, not Tarnower, which might have made sense if she had shot him once — but four times?)
I spent awhile scoping out the courthouse, because if there were a verdict sometime, there would be a race to the telephones — cellular phones did not exist in 1981. There were no phones on the floor where the Harris courtroom was, but there were on the floors above and below. I had decided to run up the stairs, because everyone else would head down.
Finally there was indeed a verdict: guilty. I ran upstairs — and the door was locked. So I ran up two more floors, found a phone, and called in.
The 5 p.m. newscast had just begun. I was put immediately on the air with Lester Smith, the dean of New York radio newsmen. I gasped out the verdict. Lester ad-libbed a little to let me catch my breath. Then I told the story of the verdict, the mood in the courtroom, and so on.
We were, by a couple minutes, the first on the air with the story.
It was the most satisfying feeling, ever. Well, for me — Jean Harris wasn’t as pleased.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.