Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2001

Imaginary trial of bin Laden rushed to air tonight

November 29, 2001

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— After today, and the people at Court TV can stop sweating the Osama bin Laden hunt.

The network's one-hour documentary imagining a trial for the terrorist thought to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks is being rushed to television tonight, rescheduled from Dec. 6.

The Taliban's sudden retreat in Afghanistan and the prospect that bin Laden might be dead before the program could be telecast had producers working night and day to get it done.

"When I gave the green light, I thought that we would have some time," Court TV Chairman Henry Schleiff said.

He commissioned the show about a month after the attacks, with the war on terrorism and the search for bin Laden just beginning. Court TV, like many other nonnews cable networks, was looking for a way to get a piece of the story.

"Osama bin Laden on Trial" veers away from the cheesy "mock trials" of television past, like the five-hour Showtime case against Lee Harvey Oswald with Geraldo Rivera as host 15 years ago.

No actor is hired to portray bin Laden. Instead, legal experts like Alan Dershowitz, Eric Holder, Ron Kuby and F. Lee Bailey, joined by ABC News correspondents Brian Ross and John Miller, trace the evidence against bin Laden and suggest possible arguments.

Even Dershowitz, who successfully defended O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, concedes that defending bin Laden would be "an uphill battle."

In the program, lawyers talk about how the public statements of bin Laden and his cohorts might be used against him in a trial, and trace financial and other connections between his organization and the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Court TV anchor Rikki Klieman suggests the evidence might not be solid enough. "What have you got?" she says. "The face of a bogeyman, and nothing else."

The lawyers advise a mythical bin Laden defense attorney on a closing argument. Dershowitz said he'd tell jurors that the best way to honor the Sept. 11 victims is to make sure they don't convict someone when reasonable doubt exists about guilt.

Careful attention was paid to tone, so it wasn't sensational. Film of the smoking World Trade Center is shown, but not the planes crashing into the towers. There's an artist's conception of what bin Laden might look like in the courtroom, but it's used only once.

"People can always say it's exploitive," Schleiff said. "Listen, it's a business. What we wanted to do was get a legitimate story out there. This has all the elements of a riveting, compelling documentary."

Court TV had a run of strong ratings, mixing reruns of justice-related shows like "Homicide: Life on the Street" with its own news shows and documentaries, up until a post-Sept. 11 slump.

Although the network rushed to finish the documentary, it wouldn't necessarily be canceled if bin Laden were killed, he said.

"Whether he is captured or killed beforehand is almost incidental," he said, "although I kind of hope from a showman's perspective that this (show) precedes anything."

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