Media Influence in the Courtroom

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Tahir Williams
Media Influence in the Court Room 5/04/12

A person foreign to America may typically be intrigued by the severity of its discord concerning the justice system and media coverage (Resta, 2008, p.31). That person may also wonder why criminal trials receive the amount of coverage that networks dedicate to them. Court trials receive media scrutiny for several reasons, one of them being to ensure the public that the criminal justice system remains effective (Resta, 2008, p.31). If the court case surrounds a celebrity, or sex and drugs is involved, the public tends to be more interested in the outcome. The O.J. Simpson trial is an example of how the American people can become obsessed with the proceedings of a criminal trial. The trial was also an illustration of the how difficult it is to balance both The First Amendment right to free press, and the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial (Resta, 2008, p.31). While the media glamorizes major court cases by dedicating countless hours of coverage to criminal trials, it does not change the fact that the jury determines the outcome of the case. Throughout history the American people have relied on the media to inform them about the proceedings of major criminal trials. In the early as 1800’s, local newspapers covered the major criminal court cases from that century. The Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807, was the first foremost court trial to deal with the issue of media pressure in a legal court case (Mcguire and Ramsey, 2000, p 70). The indictment charged Aaron Burr with two counts of treason, and caused a public feud between him and President Thomas Jefferson that sparked the media’s attention. In agreement with the First Amendment right of freedom of the press, the reporters for the newspapers accounted the contentions, of both the prosecution and the defendant’s attorneys (McGuire and Ramsey, 2000, p. 70). The newspapers fed the public’s interest, by taking sides while reporting on the case. Resulting in Burr’s counsel contending that his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial would be jeopardized, due to the media’s overabundance of coverage. Aaron Burr pled not guilty to the two counts of treason, and the jury’s deliberation ended to benefit him. Mr. Burr blamed the media himself for the struggles he endured, during the time of his criminal court case (McGuire and Ramsey, 2000, p. 71). Newspapers continued their obsession with trials and legal spectacles into the 20th century, with the coverage of Bruno Hauptmann’s trial in 1934 for the Lindberg child abduction and murder. According to McGuire and Ramsey (2000), “The case was considered to be the most astounding American homicide trial of the 20th century, because it concerned the abduction and execution of a prominent child. The public sincerely attached their emotions to this case, and wanted justice for the Lindberg family. The community outrage was so profound, that a projected 20,000 citizens, for each day packed the streets around the courthouse to monitor the court case. The trial was portrayed as the most absurd and disappointing illustration of indecent exposure and expert misbehavior yet offered in an offender’s court case (McGuire and Ramsey, 2000, p.73). The jury established Hauptmann’s accountability, and his counsel moved to appeal his conviction. During his appeal, the appellate court admitted that very few trials in history would experience such media scrutiny. The appeal was denied, and court did not overturn the jury’s verdict. Even though the court was sure of his guilt, the appellate court believed that his attorney’s should have asked the judge for a continuation (McGuire and Ramsey, 2000, p.74). This case was the first comprehensive model of a judgment court’s lack of ability to control detrimental media hype of that force. Towards the end of the century in the 1990’s, American’s...
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