Ted Bundy’s murder trial was in many ways the country’s first foray into reality television. Media from all 50 states and nine foreign countries descended on the state of Florida bringing with them more than 100 reporters, tape editors, producers, and camera operators to transmit the trial of the charismatic killer to news stations across the United States, according to the Miami New Times.
The trials, reported as the first national televised trial to be transmitted across national airwaves, quickly became a circus-like atmosphere, with Ted Bundy groupies sitting in the courtroom, Bundy playing to the cameras, and even the killer’s own nuptials occurring during testimony.
The trial wasn’t the only aspect of the case to be played out before the public. W. Kenneth Katsaris, the sheriff of Leon County, also invited the media to a public reading of the indictment even before the trial began.
Netflix’s new biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile,” directed by Joe Berlinger, depicts the media frenzy with Bundy, played by Zac Efron, angrily accusing the sheriff during the indictment’s reading of keeping him “gagged” while the sheriff was able to play out the arrest before the public.
“I can’t believe what they’ve managed to do,” Bundy laments in the fictionalized film to future-wife Carole Ann Boone. “They are using me as a ploy for the sheriff to win points in the next election. I am being used for political gain.”
But were authorities really “using” Bundy for their own benefit?
Why Was The Trial Televised?
It turns out the decision to televise the trial was not made by prosecutors themselves (or Bundy, who made a movement to restrict cameras from the courtroom, which was denied, according to The Miami New Times).
The decision to allow cameras in the court room was made after the Florida Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision authorizing the use of cameras and recording equipment in courtrooms across the state on May 1,1979, just a month before Bundy’s trial was set to begin.
The decision was made to televise the trial, regardless of what the defense or prosecution thought of the matter, according to a news clip in the docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” also directed by Joe Berlinger.
“We’re conducting the public’s business, gentleman, and we’re going to conduct it in the sunshine as we’ve said in Florida,” judge Edward D. Cowart said during the trial.
Legal analyst Beth Karas told Oxygen.com that while she doesn’t know the specifics of the decision to allow cameras in the courtroom for Bundy’s trial, she doesn’t believe the move was unusual for the state of Florida.
“Florida has historically been one of the most liberal states allowing cameras,” said Karas, a former prosecutor who covered trials for 19 years with Court TV.
She believes prosecutors should always be transparent with the public and said certain safeguards, including not filming undercover agents or underage minors, are typically built into the process to add safety for those who need it.
“You shouldn’t have anything to hide. Your case is transparent,” Karas said. “You are working for the people. You are working for the government and you shouldn’t have anything to hide.”
According to Larry Simpson, the prosecutor of the Chi Omega murders, presenting the case “before the virtual nation watching” actually added an increased element of pressure for him.
“I was a young lawyer at the time,” he said in the Netflix docu-series. “It was baptism by fire if you would, but quite frankly, from my perspective, I had to treat it like it was just another case.”
Karas said the decision to televise a trial can also depend on the level of public interest in a case. For instance, she and another producer lobbied in 2011 to have cameras in the courtroom during the trial of Conrad Murray, the doctor who had been treating pop star Michael Jackson before his death.
Their argument prevailed and cameras were allowed.
“Probably the winning argument was that there was such public interest worldwide in this case that it was only fair to let everyone see this public drama unfolding and not just the few who could make it into the coveted public seats,” she said.
Karas noted Bundy's murders also had a “ripple effect across the country” and were committed in various states throughout the 1970s.
“This was a major high-profile case in the United States and the public had an interest in seeing justice unfolding and at seeing the public courtroom at work,” she said.
Was There Prejudicial Publicity?
However, defense attorney Michael Minerva, who helped defend Bundy during the trial, said the increased media attention around the trial could have negatively impacted Bundy’s ability to find an objective jury.
“The problem with Ted Bundy was that he was not a typical defendant because he was so infamous, the media had flooded the whole state of Florida with all this prejudicial publicity about what Ted had done,” he said in “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.”
Minerva added that all the information published in media reports went “a long way to destroying” the public’s perception or presumption of innocence in the case.
Bundy was seemingly furious with the sheriff for reading the indictment in such a public manner, but Karas told Oxygen.com any indictment is typically a part of the public record.
“Reading the indictment is routine in the courtroom and a lot of times the documents are simply made public,” she said.
Regardless of Bundy’s thoughts on how the case was handled, he’d eventually be convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.
He was executed in 1989 shortly after confessing to 30 murders of women across the country.
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