Courtroom shows might be the ultimate in popcorn TV. They’re full of “Oh no you didn’t”, “Did he just say that?!” and “How dumb do you think we are?” moments. The likes of Judge Judy and her followers, including Judge Joe Brown, allow us to not only shake our heads over the wicked and shiftless cheats and cons of the world, they give us the character of the judge, a higher being who not only mostly agrees with us, but immediately hands out punishments to people who’ve crossed the line. So satisfying. TVs most popular judges are quotable and relatable to the point that the saying “only Judy can judge me” has become a popular tattoo. It’s all about the victory of truth and right over deception and stupidity.
But if you’ve ever wondered who judges the judges, the witness, the cases and the whole courtroom… well, this could be your job when Court Cam S1 starts on Lifetime (DStv 131) on Wednesday, 26 August. The series is based on surveillance footage recorded in the courthouse, and features some of the most dramatic, emotional moments ever caught during US trials. It shows breakdowns of not just the witnesses and accused, but the legal system itself at times. And unlike the normal TV judge shows, these are high-stakes murder and robbery trials. No dog-snatching, rent-dodging defendants here.
Trial by Dan
Court Cam series host and executive producer Dan Abrams (the chief legal analyst for ABC News in the US) interviews witnesses, judges and victims in the recorded courtroom incidents to capture their different perspectives on what really happened during dramatic moments, and why. “I have covered trials for my entire career, and even I was stunned by many of these remarkable courtroom moments. Then getting to talk to the people involved, from heroes to victims, was as enlightening as it was humbling,” says Dan.
It’s not all heartbreak and tears. There are lighter moments, too. Find out what gets one judge so hot under the collar that he strips off his robe in court, what happens when one suspect starts singing in an effort to derail the trial, and even see a judge vault over the bench and give chase when suspects flee the courtroom. Dan is the perfect host, always ready with a witty quip for the more absurd moments like these.
Disorder in court!
Here’s just 5 of the dramatic moments that will play out this season.
- In episode 2, convicted serial killer Michael Madison is seen smirking during sentencing. Enraged, mourning father Van Terry, whose 18-year-old daughter was one of the killer’s victims, launches himself at Michael in a physical attack. As Van Terry is hauled back by court officials, the Court Cam captures chilling footage of Michael basking in the emotional reaction he has provoked.
- Washington Judge R.W. Buzzard shocks his courtroom in episode 3 when he strips off his gown to give chase after defendants Tanner Jacobson and Kodey Howard, still in handcuffs, try to escape down the courtroom’s stairwell. “I was yelling at them all the way down the stairs to 'stop, you're making things worse’,” Buzzard reveals.
- In episode 4, a shocking trial becomes an even bigger headline grabber when 52-year-old Aubrey Trail, a man accused of murdering and chopping up the corpse of his 24-year-old Tinder date, shouts out, “I curse you all,” at the jury before slashing at his own throat several times with a razor blade.
- A judge is firmly in the wrong and goes on to face the consequences in episode 5. Judge John Murphy steps way out of line when public defender Andrew Weinstock insists on his client’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The court camera captures Judge Murphy saying, “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now… I said sit down. If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.” He then makes good on that threat and a scuffle can be heard after he’s seen ushering Weinstock into the hallway outside the courtroom.
- And the quiet dignity of the courtroom breaks out into utter pandemonium in episode 8 when brothers Jerome Stuart Dees and Anthony Dees lunge at their mother’s killer, Dale Wiliams, who has confessed to running her car off the road and shooting her. The courtroom is filled with screaming and shouting as the brothers take down Dale and start kicking him.
Court on camera
If you start seeing the names of the same US states come up again and again (like Washington) in the series, it’s not because their residents are rowdier and more prone to courtroom capers and catastrophes. Allowing cameras in court at all has been the subject of debate for many years in the US legal system, and it is still relatively rare. Cameras are still banned from federal courts, which is why written court reports in the media are supported by sketch artists and photos taken on the courtroom steps, rather than photographers in the courtroom itself.
The courts featured in the Court Cam series were part of a pilot study that ran between 2011 and 2015, and continued in only 3 of those districts after 2016 (California Northern, Washington Western, and Guam).
German judge Dr Ruth Herz, herself a TV judge on the courtroom re-enactment series Jugendgericht (2001-2005), warns that cameras in court, and the use of courts and even court cameras for entertainment, is still an ethical minefield. “When competition appeared on the small screen, it caused the serious quality of my programme to suffer. The court series, which had started out portraying the justice system realistically, ended up slipping into the scandalous. Emotions, or what the production defined as emotions, became more and more prevalent. Now bizarre figures populated the ‘courtroom’, the language became rough and the actors’ dresses even more revealing. And worse still, the defence lawyer as well as the prosecutor began to act aggressively and to raise their voices, a behaviour quite unheard of in a Germany,” she recalls.
Watch Court Cam S1 from Wednesday, 26 August on Lifetime (DStv 131) at 20:05