TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Apr 1, 2012

Journal Issue Date: Apr 2012

Journal Name: April 2012 - Vol. 48, No. 4

When it comes to entertainment, you just can’t beat a jury trial. Hollywood realized this a long time ago. Some of these most memorable scenes in cinema history feature jury trials.

The first jury trial I ever saw was State of Alabama v. Tom Robinson. I’ll never forget Atticus Finch’s incredible closing argument. (“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system. That is no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!”)

Unfortunately, Atticus did not inspire the jury to do justice, but he did inspire me to become a lawyer.

Other fabulously entertaining jury trials have come to us in such classic Hollywood films as Inherit the Wind, The Verdict, A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”), and My Cousin Vinny (“Everything he just said is bull ——!”)

But up until now, I have not seen a jury trial featuring the Muppets. This has been a great disappointment to me, since I am probably the Muppets’ biggest fan. My favorite actors are Kermit, Big Bird, Elmo, Fozzie, the Swedish Chef and of course, the greatest Hollywood sex symbol of all time, the voluptuous Miss Piggy. I would love to see them in a jury trial in a Hollywood sequel such as 12 Angry Muppets, Anatomy of a Muppet Murder, My Cousin Kermit, or A Few Good Muppets. But so far, I have not had the wonderful experience of watching Kermit defend an innocent Fozzie or seeing Miss Piggy cross-examine Gonzo.

But thanks to a Cleveland television station, “The Muppets’ Court” may soon be a coming attraction!

Back in January, a high profile jury trial began in Cleveland. The case of State v. Jimmy Dimora shaped up to be the biggest corruption trial in Ohio history, as the defendant, a noted Ohio politician, was charged with racketeering.

It was a classic made-for-TV trial, as it featured wiretapped conversations by undercover agents and live testimony by underworld figures and prostitutes.

But in Ohio, unlike Tennessee, cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Determined to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, WOIO TV in Cleveland (Action News 19!) came up with a bold new way to bring all the excitement of this jury trial to its viewers. Each night at 11 p.m., Action News 19 reenacted the trial with … puppets! So help me, Action News 19 created a nightly news segment called “The Puppets’ Court,” starring puppets playing the roles of prosecutor, defense counsel, witnesses and even jurors. Again, so help me, every time you saw the jurors on “The Puppets’ Court”, they were all asleep, just like a real jury!

“The Puppets’ Court” was narrated by a squirrel (naturally), and at the end of each segment he announced, “No puppets were harmed during the preparation of this report!”
The real-life defense attorney, William Whitaker (who is not a puppet and does not play one on TV), was offended by “The Puppets’ Court.” He told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s sensationalizing something that doesn’t need it.”

University of Missouri Journalism Professor Randy Reaves told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “It’s entertaining. It’s professionally done, but it’s not news. This is a line I wouldn’t cross. The visual distracts from pretty serious stuff. At the end of the newscast, it’s puppets. I can’t get past that.”

Perhaps Professor Reaves would prefer lawyer ventriloquists cross-examining dummy witnesses. (“He’s putting words in my mouth!”)

Other haughty critics called “The Puppets’ Court” a “Theatre of the Absurd,” as if a real jury trial is neither theatre nor absurd.

But television viewers in Cleveland absolutely loved it. Action News 19’s 11 p.m. newscast soared in the ratings, even surpassing reruns of Andy of Mayberry, Three’s Company and Two and a Half Muppets.

“The Puppets’ Court” is must-see TV, and you can now watch reruns. Just go to YouTube.com and search for “Puppets’ Court.” Really. You must see it.

No doubt about it, “The Puppets’ Court” is the best thing to come out of Cleveland since Bob Feller. I live in Memphis, not Cleveland, and I have refused to even visit Cleveland ever since that city beat out Memphis for the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Putting the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland rather than Memphis was like locating the Country Music Hall of Fame in Detroit and the Motown Hall of Fame in Nashville.

But if there is ever a Puppet Hall of Fame, I would definitely locate it in Cleveland. And thanks to “The Puppets’ Court”, I might yet realize my dream of watching The Muppets in a jury trial. In fact, I think “The Muppets’ Court” should be a regular TV series, reenacting great jury trials.

Admit it. Wouldn’t you love to see a reenactment of the O. J. trial, starring Kermit as the late Johnnie Cochran? (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit, and after you do, I will sing ‘The Rainbow Connection’”).

And who would you rather watch cover a high-profile jury trial — Nancy Grace or Miss Piggy? Well, that’s a no-brainer, even though they do bear a remarkable resemblance.
So why don’t we get things started? It’s time to get things started on the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational jury trial of all! This is what we will call “The Muppets’ Court!”

Bill Haltom Bill Haltom is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.