Jury's out for Netflix series Trial By Media

Trial By Media. (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix's latest crime documentary Trial By Media poses a thought-provoking question to its audience -- how does the court of public opinion impact a judicial system and its verdicts?

The crime stories investigated here take the audience through turbulent and distressing times in US history during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Each of the six-part series explores the media's role in publicising the case, and the manner in which it eventually shaped a general opinion of the crime. Frequently for the worse than the better.

Each instalment in the series, whose executive producers include George Clooney and Jeffrey Toobin, examines flashpoints in broader social issues, from police brutality to sexual assault to political corruption. How press coverage of each case influenced collective attitudes and the criminal justice system at large is further explored.

The self-contained character of each case study allows for an investigation of the respective variations of each case -- racial biases play a crucial role in some, but not all six of these episodes. It also means the episodes can be watched in any order. The array of transgressions at its centre makes Trial by Media a invigorating change of speed from other serialised takes on the category, as it addresses each story with relative brevity.

The first episode is that of the murder of Scott Amedure, who appeared on the 90s television programme The Jenny Jones Show to tape an episode about "Same Sex Secret Crushes". In the course of the episode, which never aired, he informs another man, Jonathan Schmitz, that he has a crush on him in a revelation that takes the man by surprise.

Shortly after the taping, Schmitz murders Amedure, later claiming that it was out of embarrassment over what happened on the talk show. Interestingly the case that arose from Amedure's murder called into question the ethical responsibilities of talk shows, with Amedure's family arguing The Jenny Jones Show bore part of the responsibility for his death.

Amedure's family went on to successfully sue the show, which resulted in a ruling awarding them US$25 million, that was later overturned. Schmitz was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison in 1996 and was released in 2017.

Another crime that gripped the US media was the case that became known as "Big Dan's rape", after a woman was gang-raped in a local bar by four men in full view of onlookers in 1983.

The trail that followed saw the woman being roughly cross-examined and victim-blamed, which gave rise to discourse over how sexual assault victims should be treated and protected in the wake of such crimes. Six men were arrested in connection with the case; of those, four men were charged with and convicted of aggravated rape.

The remaining four episodes have a common theme which explores the numerous methods in which the press have contributed to reshaping public perception about guilt or innocence prior to, during or after a trial.

All in the hope of indicting the media, which it falls short on, what Trial By Media manages to accomplish rather is put on trial human nature and human frailty.

Probably the most bothersome element here is the manner with which the series insists on showcasing the very same evidential specifics continually, without taking the time to add insightful details to add a freshness to the case.

Without a connecting theme the audience can follow, the rudderless narrative misses the mark about the subject itself.

What is going in its favour, is that the series does pose a crucial question when it comes to sensationalised court cases, even if it can't answer it in totality.

The media indeed has much to be accountable for when it comes to sensationalising coverage of crimes of public interest. It often gives society the impression of knowing the facts, but after the dust settles we find the legal narrative is far removed from the media narrative.

Fresh insight into old cases is a must in crime documentaries. Without that, there is just a bland aftertaste.

If there is a next season on the cards for Trial By Media, my hope is that it will offer fresh insights into each case.

  • Trial By Media
  • Starring Al Sharpton, Frank Amedure Jr, Patti Blagojevich
  • Now streaming on Netflix