By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO April 8, 2003 It sure isnt Judge Judy or any of those other television courtroom trials featuring a cast of characters arguing about who should pay for a dented fender or a pilfered kitty.
Court TV is considered the real deal in the world of the American criminal system. It opens up windows on the inner workings of the courtroom, as real people in real situations face judges and juries charged with freeing the innocent or convicting the guilty in many cases the first step to the electric chair or gas chamber.
In a first for the county, Sullivan County Court Judge Frank J. LaBuda okayed the cable networks request to enter his courtroom and document the murder trial of Hal Karen for broadcast into nearly 80 million homes.
Karen, 43, is charged with the second-degree murder of his 41-year-old wife, Tammy Lynn Karen.
In the four-part indictment, a grand jury also accused the former serviceman of perjury, offering a false instrument and making a punishable false written statement.
Authorities said they were notified on June 27, 1999 that Tammy Lynn Karen had left for parts unknown and until a fateful day in March 2002, they treated it as a missing persons case.
On March 25, a couple looking for a deerstand in the woods found the grisly remains of a woman in a garbage can covered with trash bags and tied off with parachute cord. In the wake of three months of forensic work, the decomposed body was identified as Tammy Lynn Karen.
Then Hal Karen changed his tune.
He told police he found his wife dead of a drug overdose in the couples former Bloomingburg home and, in fear of losing their young son, he dumped her body over an embankment.
As the murder trial unfolded before Judge LaBuda and the jury, it was dubbed the Garbage Can Murder.
We selected the Hal Karen murder trial for a combination of factors, said Court TVs Judith Bishop.
She wears a couple of hats at Court TV: executive producer for team trial coverage and director of special projects.
Its very rare that we gain access to New York State courts, and as a result when we do, we definitely like to take advantage of it, she said.
Bishop said Court TV viewed the case against Karen as interesting on several fronts, including forensics and the process of getting to the bottom of wildly conflicting stories about how Tammy Lynn Karen died.
Was it murder or the tragic death of a young woman by a drug overdose?
Its about real people, compelling characters with conflicting stories, said Bishop. It has an air of mystery about it.
She described Court TV as a classic broadcast success story.
Court TV was founded 11 1/2 years ago by Steven Brill, whos getting a lot of ink these days for his book on how America changed after September 11, 2001, said Bishop.
About five years ago, Brill sold Court TV to AOL-Time Warner and Liberty Media Group, two giants of the industry who own the company jointly.
Known for its focus on forensic and investigative programming, Court TV offers a diverse schedule: primetime coverage, movies, anchors and on-air journalists, three Web sites (CourtTV.com, CrimeLibrary.com, and thesmokinggun.com), public service initiatives and trial coverage, the cornerstone of their daytime programming.
Daytime coverage of some of the nations most newsworthy and controversial legal proceedings have included TX v. Clara Harris (a woman convicted of her husbands murder); CA v. Knoller and Noel (the dog mauling trial); TX v. Yates (a mother convicted of drowning her five kids); and People v. Boss, et al. (the Amadou Diallo shooting).
And now theres the murder case against Hal Karen of Sullivan County.
Carolyn Purcell, a Court TV field producer, is in charge of the team covering the trial.
In addition to Purcell, freelance cameraman John Gulas and freelance sound engineer Ken Johnson record every moment of the trial: from the time Karen enters the courtroom in custody of Sullivan County Sheriffs deputies, until the minute Judge LaBuda adjourns proceedings for the day.
I think its fascinating to see the [criminal justice] system at work, said Purcell. Theyre all human cases, all cases about things that have happened in peoples lives.
Purcell works quietly on her laptop as her two-man staff records the ebb and flow between conflicting scenarios, differing medical expert witnesses and battling attorneys.
After the final day of testimony on Friday, Senior Court Officers (SCOs) Jay Nober and Tom Kaczkowski sorted through mounds of evidence presented before the court as exhibits so the Court TV crew could add starkly visual impact to the production.
Purcell said Court TV takes a conservative approach to what makes it to the airwaves, so they wouldnt film a few of the more grisly crime scene photos.
They recorded about 40 of the 85 exhibits presented to the jury by Sullivan County DA Stephen Lungen, including the grime-encrusted garbage can, the death certificate and a section of what was described as military-issue parachute cord.
As a spectator and reporter, I think our viewers can identify with the cases, said Purcell. From case to case, they learn different things.