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Jurors Overrule the Media's Hype

September 18, 2003|Catherine Crier | Catherine Crier is a Court TV anchor and author of "The Case Against Lawyers" (Broadway Books, 2002).

As we wring our hands over yet another media frenzy at the courthouse, this time in the Kobe Bryant case, some historical perspective should ease the pain.

The year 1921 was a grand one for courthouse scandal. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox faced allegations that they conspired to throw the World Series. Fatty Arbuckle was tried in California three times in the press and courts before being acquitted on manslaughter charges. The Sacco-Vanzetti trial in Massachusetts required police to surround the courthouse and search every entrant for weapons; 650 citizens were interviewed before a panel could be selected. There were bombings and riots around the world as the trial, convictions and ultimate executions were reported.

In 1924, the Loeb and Leopold case became our first "trial of the century."

The next year, Clarence Darrow handled the defense in the Scopes monkey trial. "One was hard put ... to know whether Dayton [Tennessee] was holding a camp meeting, a chautauqua, a street fair, a carnival or a belated Fourth of July celebration," an observer recorded. He went on to describe the courtroom. "A battalion of newspaper photographers and movie men literally wrestled for advantageous positions; just outside the bar enclosure muffled telegraph instruments ticked, and reporters for the big dailies, Associated Press and similar services sat dripping with sweat; people stood in aisles and three deep against the back walls ... even the big prize fights and national conventions have been covered both by a lesser number and by a lesser caliber of writers."

When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, that event became known as the Crime of the Century. Author H.L. Mencken called it "the greatest story since the Resurrection."

As one New Jersey newspaper, the Hunterdon County Democrat, later wrote of it: "Imagine modern-day celebrities such as Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Larry King, Barbara Walters, Oprah and Geraldo descending on one small town. Imagine a swarm of 700 news and camera men improvising studios in hotel rooms, homes and storefronts, as utility workers festoon downtown poles with enough additional phone and electric wires to serve a small city.... Police estimated 16,000 cars (more than six times the town's population) came to Flemington [N.J.] the first weekend of the trial."

Despite competition from the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, it was the case of Sam Sheppard, the Ohio doctor accused of killing his pregnant wife, that created the biggest stir of the 1950s. The trial created such extraordinary media interest that the judge allowed 23 favored reporters to sit inside the bar with the attorneys and jurors. Three of the four audience benches were assigned to journalists.

The media behaved so outrageously that the conviction was ultimately overturned on that basis. The Supreme Court suggested that courts take "strong measures" to preserve a fair trial. More recent rulings allow only limited constraints on trial participants and direct judges to prevent problems by asserting greater control.

The next four decades produced such explosive cases as that of Jack Ruby, the Chicago Seven, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, John Hinckley Jr., Bernard Goetz, the McMartin preschool defendants, William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers and, of course, O.J. Simpson.

My review of these trials demonstrates no consistent correlation between the attitudes of the media and the decisions by the juries -- with the notable exception of the Sam Sheppard case. In fact, the final results are relatively balanced between conviction and acquittal. The only constant is the relentless coverage by an insatiable press.

When fears about the media-induced demise of the American jury system are trotted out, I reflect on these trials and conclude such worries are unfounded. Time and again, a jury of 12 has taken its oath to heart, deciding cases based on the evidence presented in court and not in the press.

With each passing year, behavior in the courts by both participants and the press has clearly improved. Finally, although jurors take their civic duty seriously, they do not give reports in the press the same respect, as evidenced by their independent decision-making. American citizens, guided by our system of justice, are more than capable of protecting the right to a fair trial -- even in the face of calamitous coverage.

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