When the TV Killer Killed
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we keep our friends close and our enemies closer.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Culture wars and echoes of culture wars stretch back to long before we bothered naming them. This could be seen as being on the cusp of that change, when the fumes of ’60s love and understanding were giving way to late ’70s Me Generation ugliness. Evidenced by the curious 1977 case of 15-year-old Ronny Zamora.
Zamora had broken into the house of an 83-year-old Miami Beach neighbor. She had caught him mid-break-in, and he shot her in response. Zamora and a 14-year-old friend, Darrell Agrella, went back to the business of burglary, stealing things of worth and eventually taking her 1972 Buick to Disney World. This was quickly followed by an arrest and trial, and that’s when things went a little crazy.
Ellis Rubin, Zamora’s defense attorney, was noted for novel defenses — a high watermark of his was using nymphomania as a defense in a prostitution case — but he was about to outdo himself. Zamora, he would claim, had killed not so much because he was being driven by evil but because of excessive amounts of TV viewing. Specifically “prolonged, intense, involuntary, subliminal television intoxication,” according to Rubin.
… it’s either amazing or totally sensible that we’ve not had more Zamoras using this defense more often.
Chris Duncan, Denver attorney
Not satisfied with having his defense and his client thrust chin-first into global consciousness, thanks to the furor kicked up by his audacity, the then-52-year-old Rubin upped the ante: He subpoenaed Kojak TV star Telly Savalas to testify, and the Florida Supreme Court had just recently approved cameras being placed in courtrooms. In court, Rubin said this made sense because Zamora was “living out the plots as if they were his own life.” And then, surprise of all surprises, the judge agreed to hear the star’s testimony, along with that of six psychiatrists.
All of which didn’t make a damn bit of a difference to the jury: At age 15, Zamora was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“[Rubin] was pretty fantastic as a showman,” says Philadelphia defense attorney Danny Katz. “But the ‘I can’t tell the difference between reality and TV because I watch too much TV’ defense?” Katz ponders. “Well, it set the blueprint for the media monger defense attorney, but if I’m trying to prove a controversial method of reducing culpability, I’m getting experts of the field, not TV stars.”
Something that Zamora’s family concurred with when they decided to appeal his conviction. The charge? Very specifically that Rubin clowned it up and was only there to self-promote and bask in the coverage. The appeals court didn’t care, and Zamora’s younger partner in crime, Agrella, got three life terms for second-degree murder, robbery and burglary (in the end only serving seven years).
Zamora? After serving 27 years, he was released in 2004 at the age of 42 — released and immediately sent back to his native Costa Rica. Contrite and a skosh confused with a world that had changed substantially since he was 15. His attorney, Rubin, died two years later at the age of 81. And TV saw the 1970s — now awash in congressional hearings, national PTA resolutions, academic studies and the American Medical Association pegging televised violence an “environmental hazard” — pull back from overwhelmingly violent televised content.
A trend that continued right up to the Reagan revolution’s deregulation of media in the 1980s, when creators could create in whatever ways they saw fit, on TV and on all of the independent networks that were part of a newly ascendant cable business. This despite a surgeon general’s report on violence and evidence of links between televised violence and aggressive, modeling behaviors.
“TV used to be a very narrow keyhole view onto the American landscape,” says Denver attorney Chris Duncan. But with the internet and more cable than anyone ever imagined and not many restraints, “it’s either amazing or totally sensible that we’ve not had more Zamoras using this defense more often.”
And Zamora today? Has successfully escaped further notice. Which is probably good for everyone.