A Queens Court Fixture Since the 1950s
Gabriel Soler has regularly been inside New York courts for almost 50 years without ever being accused of a crime. Instead, it’s a curiosity about criminals and the legal system that frequently attracts Soler and other “court tourists” to both city courtrooms and court television.
“I like to find out who the person is that has been arrested, and how someone who has committed a robbery looks compared to someone who tried to sneak into the subway,” Soler, 69, says as he follows a number of arraignments in Manhattan’s criminal night court on Tuesday.
“I like to watch their facial expressions when they are brought out, and I enjoy following the procedure of the court and listening to the dialogue,” says Soler, who started visiting courts in the late 1950s.
His fascination with the judicial system isn’t out of the ordinary.
Tourists, especially from countries where courts are not open to the people, frequently visit New York’s public trials or take advantage of official court tours at 60 and 100 Centre Streets. Among the tourists’ favorites are night courts held from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. to accommodate for the city’s immense volume of crime. Over the past month, a daily average of 352 crimes including robbery and murder were reported by the New York Police Department.
But the phenomenon is not isolated to foreigners. In the United States, the public’s high interest in crimes is reflected in the amount of court-related television. There are currently 13 court shows on air with “Judge Judy” being the most successful. The show ranked fifth among the top syndicated programs for the week of Oct. 22, according to Nielsen Media Research. At the same time, Court TV has become a major provider of live trial coverage. On Oct. 29, Court TV announced a rebranding initiative to expand the network, which has already experienced continuous growth with currently 91 million customers.
In addition, there are several successful fictional crime shows among the top 20 network primetime series. They include “CSI,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Cold Case” and “Law & Order,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
But these fictional dramas don’t come even close to the court room action in Soler’s opinion. While the Queens resident says his interest for arraignments and trials rose from movies like ”The Wrong Man” and “Kiss of Death,” he can now easily spot the flaws in scripted dramas.
“I can point out if things look wrong. Over the years I have learned the court process,” says Soler, who prefers to follow real cases either at location or on Court TV.
The network has realized that authenticity is very important to customers like Soler. As part of the rebranding campaign, Court TV will change its name to truTV in January. The network’s new tagline will read “Not Reality. Actuality,” in a move to distinguish itself from reality shows with manufactured content.
“Over time, the meaning of the term ‘reality TV’ has changed and now includes shows that have very little to do with anything real,” Marc Juris, general manager of Court TV, says in a press release. “truTV is aiming for an audience that wants real-life excitement and situations.”
For Soler this real-life excitement means going out to visit real courts. He has watched arraignments and trials in courts of all five boroughs as well as in Philadelphia and Dover, Del.
The most memorable case he attended took place in Manhattan’s criminal court in 1959. “It was a homicide case where the defendant had thrown a man off a roof,” Soler says with nostalgia in his voice. “I’ll never forget that.”