Person of the Week: Hockey Dad Thomas Junta

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Thomas Junta testifies at his manslaughter trial

It's not a pleasant story, any way you look at it: One minute, Thomas Junta and Michael Costin were watching their sons' hockey practice. The next, fists (and insults) were flying — a brawl that left Costin dead. The July, 2000 incident, which bloodied the floor at a Reading, Massachusetts hockey rink, was front page news for a few days, then mercifully faded from sight. But this week, as Junta's trial for manslaughter drew to a close, the hockey dads were back in the spotlight. Friday evening, after less than two days of deliberations, a jury found Junta guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Here we are in the midst of a war, and the coverage of this case has been remarkable. Throughout the week, Junta was front and center on every cable news channel for hours at a time, weeping and pleading and eventually, Thursday afternoon, sitting mum as the judge gave the jury its orders.

Why is the appetite for this trial so rabid? It's not as if this case will set any particularly interesting legal precedent, and no one involved is famous, so comparisons to the O.J. Simpson murder trial fall a bit flat. Are we fascinated by Junta because we enjoy trials in general, because of the voyeuristic thrill we get from watching another person's fate hang in the balance? Certainly the breakthrough success of Court TV — and the coverage granted to other legal proceedings — indicates there is an audience for even the least exciting trials.

It's comforting in a way, the attention we've devoted to this trial. It shows that for all the violence that surrounds us, and for all the killings we read about in the newspapers, Americans are still capable of being nonplussed. We are still a bit surprised when a father acts like a madman. Sure, we've all experienced the ubiquitous (and frightening) parent/fan whose enthusiasm crosses the line into anger. But while we've become jaded to harsh words, we are still shocked when a heated exchange metamorphoses into a physical confrontation. The image of two grown men throwing punches on the sidelines of their children's little league event seems ridiculous — but the notion of a parent actually dying at such a game is almost unfathomable.

It's this last step that has captured our imagination during the Junta trial. How many of us have choked back irrational anger, only to ruefully shake our heads later over what might have become something far worse? The news networks understand the tragic appeal of this story: These guys represent the worst in every overeager fan, every rabidly proud parent. No one wants to believe we could ever find ourselves in Junta's place — but it's the infinitesimal fear that it could happen to us that keeps us glued to our television sets.