Order in the Court?

November 2002 - Before I get into this month's topic, I must correct a mistake from my last column. I wrote that, after much mental anguish, I decided to buy "color-safe" laundry detergent. After sending the column off to the editor, I actually looked at the detergent I actually bought. Much to my dismay, I discovered that I did not buy the "color-safe" kind. I bought detergent with "stain-dissolving power." I deeply regret the error and apologize to anyone who might have rushed out to buy the "color-safe" kind.

So, now that I've come clean, let's move on.

This month, I would like to discuss the state of the American justice system. I've always been a big fan of TV's legal dramas. LA Law, Law and Order, The Practice. I've watched them all. Slick lawyers, never at a loss for words, always get justice. The courtroom is silent as these legal eagles wax eloquent, putting the jury and me under their hypnotic spell.

Well, let me tell you, it's not like that in real life. In real life, it's amazing jurors can concentrate long enough to be hypnotized by anything. How do I know this? Because, in the course of my job, I have had occasion to sit in on a few criminal trials. And, I've come to realize that courtrooms are some of the noisiest rooms around.

This past summer, for example, I helped my news department cover a murder trial in Dauphin County. The courthouse is right in downtown Harrisburg. Since it was summer, the windows in the courtroom were open. I don't know if the jurors could hear the attorneys, but they certainly had no trouble hearing the buses that roared by on Market Street.

This fall, I have been involved in our coverage of the York Race Riot Murder Trial. Three white men are accused of killing a black woman during the 1969 race riots in York. Every day, the courtroom is filled with three defendants, four prosecutors, six defense lawyers, 12 jurors, six alternate jurors, a varying number of media types, several sheriff's deputies and a host of family members and interested observers. Just about every one of them seems to have a cold.

The coughing is constant. Coughs continuously come from the people in the audience. The reporters cough occasionally. One of the defense attorneys seems to cough just as a witness for the prosecution says something crucial. One alternate juror coughs so much that we media types fear she may not live to see the verdict. Then there's one ailing member of the victim's family who sits a couple rows back from me. She coughs so often and so loudly that I won't be surprised if she coughs up a lung and it lands on the seat beside me. And, of course, when there's a break in testimony, everybody coughs! About the only one who doesn't cough is the judge. He just sits at the bench with his head in his hands.

The coughing is so bad that one of my colleagues remarked that the courtroom sounded like a hospital ward. I disagree. I've been in hospitals. They're much quieter. Now, how about some order in the court?