Pretrial Publicity

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The right of a criminal defendant to receive a fair trial is guaranteed by the SIXTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution. The right of the press (print and electronic media) to publish information about the defendant and the alleged criminal acts is guaranteed by the FIRST AMENDMENT. These two constitutional safeguards come into conflict when pretrial publicity threatens to deprive the defendant of an impartial jury.

The U.S. Supreme Court has grappled with the issue of pretrial publicity since the 1960s. In Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 81 S. Ct. 1639, 6 L. Ed. 2d 751 (1961), the defendant, Leslie Irvin, was convicted of committing six murders in a rural area of Indiana. The crimes generated extensive media coverage. Irvin argued that the pretrial publicity prevented him from receiving a fair trial by an impartial jury. The Court agreed, noting that eight of the twelve jurors who heard the case had decided that Irvin was guilty before the trial began. Despite these admissions, the trial judge accepted as conclusive the jurors' statements that they would be able to render an impartial verdict. The Court held that the substantial publicity surrounding the case made the trial judge's determination of juror impartiality erroneous. It set out a basic rule that when pretrial publicity has been substantial, a trial court should not necessarily accept a juror's assertion of impartiality. In these cases a presumption is raised that the jurors are biased.

The Supreme Court extended this concern to the trial stage in Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 86 S. Ct. 1507, 16 L. Ed. 2d 600 (1966). Local officials allowed Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard's 1954 murder trial to degenerate into a media circus. The Cleveland media heavily publicized the case before trial and disrupted the control of the court during the trial. The jurors were exposed to intense media coverage of the case until the time they began their deliberations. Following deliberations, Sheppard was convicted of murder. Sheppard spent ten years in prison before the Supreme Court ruled that the publicity had deprived him of a fair trial. Sheppard was acquitted at his second trial.

The Sheppard case brought national attention to the problem of pretrial publicity. Trial judges attempted to address this problem by imposing gag orders on the press, preventing it from reporting pretrial information. The press resisted this approach and was supported by...

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