Five trials by media

    Highly publicized criminal trials like Amanda Knox’s have a history of fostering public opinion that can influence the outcome of a trial. This phenomenon is known as trial by media, an occurrence in which critical media coverage largely decides the view on a defendant’s guilt before the jury can. Amanda Knox’s case is a prime example. With the recent media impact on the overturning of her conviction, questions are raised surrounding journalists treatment of defendants. If the media condemns a defendant, does that measurably interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial? When does reporting scandal overstep ethical boundaries? To begin to answer these questions, take a look at five infamous cases of trial by media.

    Sam Sheppard- In the first case of trial by media, Ohio neurosurgeon Sam Sheppard was branded a murderer before even being officially charged with the 1954 murder of his pregnant wife Marilyn. Obvious bias against Sheppard, including the Cleveland Press headlines "Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail?” and “Quit Stalling — Bring him in,” convicted him in the public eye despite his plea of innocence. The jury was not sequestered, meaning that jurors were readily exposed to the inflammatory and often ungrounded judgements that the media produced in order to increase its own viewership; such exposure would inevitably impact how even the best-intentioned juror felt about the case. Sheppard was acquitted after serving 10 years, but his wrongful conviction was followed by the suicide of his mother and Marilyn’s father during his time in prison. Arguably, the media served as an indirect executioner. It fueled the guilty verdict, and the mistaken ruling resulted in two deaths.

    O.J. Simpson- Football star O.J. Simpson was charged with murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. The original grand jury was dismissed due to excessive media coverage affecting their neutrality. In this regard, I think it is fair to say that this supersized media attention had both positive and negative effects. It led to a much-needed examination of jury bias, but the time and resources used racked up court costs charged to taxpayers, and drew even more attention to the case. The Los Angeles Times reported the story on their front page for over 300 days, and the Big Three Networks devoted more time in their nightly news to the trial than to the ongoing Bosnian War and Oklahoma City bombings together. Time Magazine was accused of racist editorializing after publishing a cover photo of Simpson that had been darkened to appear more threatening. The jury’s acquittal could be deemed a result of this publicity, a way to grant Simpson the possible innocence that the media and public denied him.   

    Casey Anthony- Accused of murdering her young daughter Caylee, Casey Anthony was subjected to severe scrutiny by the media before, during and after her trial.  Anthony was portrayed as a liar and an irresponsible, partying mother. The media controlled the public’s interest and consequently its opinion of Casey Anthony. In arriving at the not-guilty verdict, the jury would have had to seriously distinguish opinion from evidence — not an easy task for such a drawn-out and complex case. Potentially, this scrutiny could have called into question the relevance or validity of evidence that might have condemned Anthony if examined in a different or more traditional way. At the time Anthony’s not guilty verdict was read, CNN Live’s website had 30 times more viewers than its daily average the month before. Opinions on Anthony’s acquittal blew up Twitter and Facebook. Journalists and the public alike unabashedly expressed their disagreement with the ruling. Time Magazine labeled the case “the social media trial of the century.”

    Amanda Knox- The media attention surrounding Amanda Knox’s conviction and its overturning is best described as a polarizing and global circus. In covering the trial over Meredith Kercher’s horrific murder, the media focused its attention on salaciousness as opposed to significance. They reported on Knox’s alleged obsessions with sex, witchcraft and drugs. “The press have crucified and impaled her in the public square,” her lawyer stated. This media criminalization of Knox was interestingly juxtaposed against her concurrent victimization by the same. Knox’s other media persona was that of an innocent college student that fell prey to a wrongful justice system. While media may not have directly impacted Knox’s initial conviction, it certainly spurred on activism that led to the appeals process which freed Amanda Knox.

    Scott Peterson- Convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his pregnant wife Laci in 2002, Scott Peterson was exposed to a whirlwind of press that created a public appetite for justice. The result of this desire was the media-determined public opinion of Peterson, fueled by coverage of his extramarital affairs.  This case called into question whether or not the media tainted the perception of Scott Peterson and caused him to receive a biased trial and sentencing. And while the evidence in this case would have convicted Scott Peterson regardless of media exposure, the case is still relevant to the notion of trial by media purely because of how effectively it was able to showcase the tensions that occur when the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of press clashes forcefully with the constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial.

    There is a fine line between the media reporting on a trial and the media sensationalizing a trial. These five cases demonstrate media conducting its own trial of sorts, which can lead to jury dismissals, can result in a jury being sequestered, and can force juries to disregard important character evidence for fear that media bias may have turned it into prejudicial evidence. I do believe that media coverage has its place in trials. As a media consumer, I like being well-informed about ongoing court cases, and the media can occasionally serve as a useful window to keep the judicial system transparent. However, I also like forming my own opinion about cases and defendants. I don’t need the media to spoonfeed me how I should feel about Casey Anthony’s hard-partying ways. My opinion is my opinion, and it should not factor into a jury’s decision.  I’m not the 13th juror.


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