Media Influence in Capital Cases
Media Influence on Capital Cases
The media wields tremendous influence in our society. Newspapers, radio, television, and new media not only spread information, but also help to determine what topics and stories people talk about. Many crimes receive extensive media coverage, which provides a challenge for prosecutors, as well as defendants and defense attorneys, when it comes to trying a case. Juries are supposed to be unbiased when deciding a case, despite the news coverage they may have come across before trial. Police officers involved in criminal cases may become entangled with the media in the process of providing information about a case. Media coverage of a trial, especially television cameras in the courtroom, can affect the behavior of witnesses and jurors.
Under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, every defendant is entitled to a trial by an impartial jury of his or her peers. Due to extensive media coverage, jury selection in a high profile case can be extremely difficult. Jurors will likely have developed some biases about the case based on the media coverage to which they have been exposed. The impartiality of potential jurors is assessed during voir dire, the process of selecting jurors from the pool of potential jurors. Attorneys for the defense and the prosecution question members of the jury pool about numerous issues, including their exposure to pre-trial publicity and their ability to make impartial decisions and follow the judge's instructions. Social science research has found that “exposure to the various media had a prejudicial impact on people, as they were unaware of their biases.” (Ogloff & Vidmar, 1994) Even potential jurors who say they have not been biased by exposure to publicity may in fact have been prejudiced. Jurors who say they cannot set aside their bias in a case, or cannot follow a judge's instructions, are eliminated "for cause." Other jurors can be eliminated by lawyers using "peremptory strikes" (or "peremptory challenges"), which allow each side to eliminate a certain number of jurors without cause.
Capital cases, in particular, often attract extensive, emotionally charged coverage. These cases also present greater difficulties than other cases because death-qualified jurors may be more susceptible to pre-trial publicity than other jurors. According to a 2007 study, participants who passed a simulated death-qualification process were more likely to recognize the facts of a highly-publicized murder case, and were significantly more likely than "excludable" jurors to think the defendant was guilty and that he should be sentenced to death. Researchers found two likely causes for these findings. First, death-qualified participants were more likely to watch daily news programs, making them more aware of the facts in the case. Second, death-qualified jurors in other studies have shown pro-prosecution beliefs, making them more inclined to find the defendant guilty. (Butler, 2007)
Research indicates that judges are also susceptible to media coverage when making their rulings. A Stanford University study found “press coverage magnifies the influence of voters’ penal preferences on criminal sentencing decisions” of elected judges for severe violent crimes. (Lim, Snyder & Stromberg, 2010) When a case receives a large amount of media coverage, elected judges tend to sentence more punitively than if the case is less publicized.
Little research has been done to date on the possible effects of social media on court cases. New media, such as blogs, facebook, or twitter, allow the public to share facts and opinions about court cases. These websites, as well as search engines like Google, present new challenges for defendants, attorneys, and judges. Information is more widely available than ever before, and potential jurors who may not come across a case in traditional media may be influenced by the reactions of others on social media sites.
The problems caused by pre-trial publicity can be addressed by the court in a number of ways. Despite the biasing effect of pre-trial publicity, the Supreme Court has ruled that courts cannot stop the press from publicizing truthful information about criminal trials, as doing so would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. Since pre-trial publicity cannot be prevented, courts must find ways to minimize its impact on the fairness of the trial.
The court may postpone trial proceedings in order to allow time for the initial publicity to dissipate. The judge can also modify jury instructions to specifically instruct jurors to ignore pre-trial publicity. However, these approaches may not be effective in eliminating juror bias.
If defense attorneys believe their client will be harmed by pre-trial publicity, they can request a change of venue, which moves the trial away from the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees a trial in the district where the crime took place, the defendant can waive this right by filing a change of venue motion. While this strategy can counteract exposure to local media coverage, it does little to reduce the impact of national coverage. Moreover, change of venue motions are rarely granted, partly due to the high cost of transporting and housing attorneys, witnesses, and court personnel. Additionally, judges are hesitant to admit that a defendant can receive a fair trial only in another jurisdiction, and they may not want to "frustrate the local community's legitimate interests in resolving the case." (Minow & Cate, 1991) Statistics from the 1990s show that California courts granted only about 10 change of venue motions per year. (Shahani, 2005) The Supreme Court has held that, in certain cases, "only a change of venue [is] constitutionally sufficient to assure the kind of impartial jury that is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment." (Groppi v. Wisconsin)
Problems in Particularly High-Profile Cases
A handful of cases receive such high attention that those involved in the case stand to profit from books, movies, or television appearances. Such opportunities may create conflicts of interest and distort the ability of key players to perform their roles. As discussed below, the possibility of fame and profit affected police officers and attorneys involved in the Aileen Wuornos case. Similarly, Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief Charles Moose came under fire for announcing, after the two "DC snipers" (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo) were caught, that he was going to write a book on the crimes and sell the rights to his life story to a major motion picture company. As this presented a conflict of interest, Chief Moose ended up resigning to pursue his book and movie deals.
All trials in the United States are open to the public, but until recently, this meant only those people who could attend in person. Television broadcasts and internet streaming have greatly expanded the number of people who are able to watch a trial in progress, raising questions about how such widespread public scrutiny might alter the court proceedings.
Cameras and media attention may cause a witness to testify differently because they fear intimidation resulting from their exposure. For example, if a person witnessed a crime by a gang member, the gang could retaliate against the witness for testifying if the witness' identity were widely exposed to the public during trial. Jurors may be swayed knowing the world will be scrutinizing them and their decision, whatever it may be. For example, after a highly-publicized trial, aired entirely on television, a Florida jury acquitted Casey Anthony of the murder of her two-year-old daughter. The jury was then widely criticized in the media and online, leading the judge in the case to "seal" the names of jurors to protect their safety. Such potential impacts raise serious concerns about whether a defendant will receive a fair trial.
The Supreme Court of the United States has been divided on the issue of allowing cameras into their own courtroom. Justice David Souter strongly opposed the idea, saying that cameras would enter the courtroom “over my dead body.” However, the public is overwhelmingly in favor of having cameras broadcast Supreme Court proceedings on a network such as CSPAN, which already airs coverage of legislative deliberations. The Justices who have sat on the Supreme Court for a long time, such as Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy, oppose cameras because they fear cameras would reshape the institution of the Court by turning the proceedings into entertainment. Newer Justices like Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Samuel Alito seem more open to broadcasting the proceedings, believing it would provide more transparency and allow people to see a lesser-known governmental function operating at a sophisticated level.
The media branded Aileen Wuornos as the first female serial killer in U.S. history, and turned this theme into the centerpiece of her trial coverage. Prosecutors jumped on this notion in making their case and trying to prove how dangerous she was. Television and tabloid coverage that made her out to be a “man-hating murderer” helped sway public opinion against her. The sex-role stereotypes constructed by the media allowed the prosecution to build its case around the fact that women typically do not commit violent crime, especially against strangers, making it easier for a jury to decide against her. (Keitner, Victim or Vamp, 2002)
Although Wuornos changed her story numerous times regarding what happened in each of the murders and whether she acted in self-defense, her claims of a media bias remained consistent. Before her initial trial, Wuornos requested a change of venue because of all the publicity her case had received; her request was denied. This issue was brought up again on appeal, but the appellate court found that “…parties were able to select jurors who all agreed that any pretrial publicity would not bias them and would not interfere with their ability to honor the trial court’s instructions." When Wuornos was asked by a reporter after the first trial concluded why she was found guilty, she claimed it was because of “media coverage” that was out to get her.
Problems in Particularly High-Profile Cases
Another troubling aspect of this case was law enforcement’s involvement with the media. Three police officers were relieved of their duties because they had entered into deals to be part of a major motion picture being made about Wuornos. The officers claimed they were “moved to sell their version of the case by pure intentions,” planning to put the money in a victims compensation fund. This called into question the credibility of some of their testimony, which may have been influenced by the money they received for their role in the case and their subsequent movie deal.
It was later discovered that Wuornos’s lawyer, Steven Glazer, who lacked prior criminal law experience, took her case for self-promotion, as he knew how much media coverage the case was receiving. Assistant Public Defender Tricia Jenkins said, “[Glazer] told me he was only taking on the case because he needed the media exposure.” Glazer requested $25,000 in return for speaking to documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield and discussing Wuornos’ case with him. Wuornos had no money to pay him, so his compensation came from interviews. He failed to investigate the officers who were making money from their movie deal, and advised Wuornos to plead guilty to all of the charges because of his limited legal experience and the lack of resources at his disposal. Although there was little debate about Wuornos’ guilt, media coverage likely played a role in her receiving the death penalty for her crimes.
Questions for Further Analysis:
- Take another high-publicity case (DC sniper John Muhammad, O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh or any other that interests you), find examples of the pre-trial publicity in that case, and analyze its potential effects.
- With all of the extensive media coverage today, especially in high-publicity cases, how can the court system find jurors who are uninformed about the case? Should finding people with no knowledge of the case be the goal? What are the drawbacks of a jury composed of such people? Are there other ways to eliminate, or at least reduce, juror bias?
- What are the arguments for and against having high-publicity cases decided by judges instead of juries?
- Should movie and TV deals be prohibited until after the case has been tried?
- How may law enforcement officials be affected in carrying out their duties by media coverage of a major case?