Long before Court TV and the spectacle of gavel-to-gavel coverage of celebrity cases on CNN, Los Angeles-based trial reporter Linda Deutsch served up gripping details for some of the nation’s biggest courtroom dramas from the pages of her spiral notebook.
Deutsch retired from the Associated Press in late December after 48 years on the job covering scores of trials, including those of Patty Hearst, Sirhan Sirhan, Angela Davis, Daniel Ellsburg, John DeLorean, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. We sat down with Deutsch recently to talk with her about her distinguished career.
When she started out, she says, it was a very different era. First of all, she was the only woman at the L.A. bureau of the AP. Also, there was no cable television news, no Internet and certainly no television cameras allowed in the courtrooms at that time.
Deutsch had not set out to be a trial reporter but in 1970 she was assigned to cover the trial of Charles Manson. That case set her lifelong career path in motion.
“It was crazy,” she recalled. “It was colorful and bizarre. We had a defendant, Charles Manson, who was a cult leader who during the trial leaped across the counsel table at the judge screaming someone should cut his head off.”
‘People were having LSD flashbacks in the audience’
But the drama didn’t stop there, she said. “We had three women defendants who jumped up and down and sang in the courtroom. People were having LSD flashbacks in the audience. It was like nothing that had ever been or would ever be again — thank goodness — but for someone like me who was a young trial reporter it was an entry into a very strange world. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what covering trials is like!’ ”
Fortunately, she says, not all trials were as “crazy.” But, she adds, “They were all colorful, and significant, and had something to say to America, which made them fascinating.”
Deutsch cemented her reputation with a detailed and a facts-only approach to journalism. But she also knew the importance of bringing the drama of the courtroom to life for readers and making them feel as if they were sitting right there alongside her. Deutsch took detailed notes using colored pens, underlining quotes she wanted to use, and gave both sides of the case equal weight.
With the saturated media coverage of high-profile court cases today, facts sometimes seem to get lost amid all the commentary. But this kind of blurring of the lines between fact-based journalism and opinion never crept into Deutsch’s work.
‘Everyone has something to gain or lose in a trial, but the reporters don’t’
“The O.J. Simpson trial was very controversial with a whole faction of the press who thought he was guilty. Even more so for the Michael Jackson trial,” Deutsch said.
“I had no vested interest in this. I always said that of all the people in a courtroom, the only ones who have nothing to lose are the reporters. Everyone else, something major is going to happen in their lives as a result. The defendant could lose his life or his freedom, the lawyers will make or break their careers, the judge will become either a hero or be vilified. Everyone has something to gain or lose in a trial, but the reporters don’t. We are just the flies on a wall, the eyes and ears of the public there to reflect what happened.”
As to the question of whether justice plays out differently for those involved in high-profile cases — say those who may be rich and famous — Deutsch says, perhaps. And not always for the better. Sometimes all that extra scrutiny works on behalf of the defendant, but sometimes it can work against him or her, she says. And if there is a robust bank account to subsidize top-notch lawyers well, Deutsch says “that’s just capitalism at work.”
“I finally am free to say what I thought’
When asked where Deutsch will turn for court coverage herself now that she’s retired, Deutsch was uncertain. She said one of the reasons she is retiring is that newspapers no longer offer the kind of coverage she provided. They simply don’t have enough space to cover trials gavel-to-gavel and assign a dedicated reporter unless it is a huge case.
So, as much as she hates to say it, Deutsch is not sure going forward if there will be great trial reporting, or trial reporting with the kind of depth she was able to provide.
It’s a long time since those early days when a young Linda Deutsch would race out of the courtroom to a pay phone and dictate her story to someone with flying fingers back at the AP news desk. She leaves her career at AP with her reputation for reporting only the facts intact. Now, she says, she plans to write a memoir.
“I finally am free to say what I thought.”