In a democratic society, the Supreme Court has noted, the press fulfills the important function of informing the public about the judicial process. Consequently, the media carry the ethical obligation not to impair criminal trial proceedings deliberately. Ultimately, the responsibility to ensure fairness rests with the trial court.
It is important to ensure that criminal defendants receive a fair trial and are not victims of emotionalism or fear. In the U.S., viewers often see interviews with case participants, who are placing their self-serving interpretation of events before the public as fact. This enables accusers to perfect their story while not under oath and to bias public opinion against a defendant who typically is under legal advice not to speak publicly.
The Courts have carefully evaluated the press’s First Amendment rights against the defendants Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. In doing so, the Court takes judicial notice of the directives to trial courts set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Sheppard v. Maxwell.
On July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard, 31 years old, four months pregnant, and the wife of Dr. Samuel Sheppard (a respected Ohio surgeon) was brutally murdered in their home in Bay Village, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Dr. Sheppard was the key suspect from the outset. He was arrested on murder charges, July 30 and indicted August 17. His trial started on October 18, 1954 and concluded with his conviction December 21, 1954. (United States Supreme Court, No. 490, 384 U.S. 333). Noting that although freedom of expression should be given great latitude, the Court held that it must not be so broad as to divert the trial away from its primary purpose: adjudicating both criminal and civil matters in an objective, calm, and solemn courtroom setting. Not in this trial case.
This lurid case had everything in excess: a host of blood, adultery, possible rape, madness, money, suicide, a dead fetus, F. Lee Bailey as Sheppard's lawyer, the Supreme Court attack on yellow journalism, DNA feuds, and a manhunt for a survivalist. Since Cain slained Abel, famous murders have left us conflicted and fascinated. Even that ancient tale remains unresolved. During the entire pretrial period, virulent and incriminating publicity about Dr Sheppard and the murder made the case scandalous, and the news media continuously aired charges and countercharges besides those for which Dr .Sheppard was tried.
“Three months before trial, he was examined for more than five hours without counsel in a televised three-day inquest conducted before an audience of several hundred spectators in a gymnasium.”(U.S. Supreme Ct. No 490, 1). Throughout this trial period the newspapers emphasized declaration that tended to incriminate Sheppard and pointed out discrepancies in his statements to authorities. At the same time, Dr. Sheppard was more of a hindrance than helpful to himself by making public statements to the media and writing articles professing his innocence. Secondly, Sheppard was not granted a change of venue to a locale away from where the publicity originated; nor was his jury sequestered. The Sheppard jurors were subjected to newspaper, radio and television coverage of the trial while not taking part in the proceedings. Can we say that Dr. Sheppard’s Sixth Amendment's guarantee to criminal defendants of a fair trial by an impartial jury was violated, yes, coupled with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
He wrote to his son ( Sam Reese Sheppard) from his cell: “In recording for my boy what I have been subjected to, it will be necessary to make known American injustice perpetrated not by the laws of our land, but by those who have sworn themselves to uphold those laws... A frightening breach of American rights has taken place, and the important point is that the breach has happened here in America, not who it has happened to.” Dr Sam Sheppard, from his prison journal, 1955
“Samuel H. Sheppard a wrongfully imprisoned person, convicted of second degree murder of his wife, spent nearly ten years in prison as a result of this conviction, later, evidence showed by clear and convincing proof that he was actually innocent of this crime.” (Court of Common Pleas, Case No.CR 64571). Twelve years in the making, and after a few appeals had been rejected, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Dr. Sheppard’s conviction, ruling that he had been denied a fair trial, because of pretrial and trial publicity about the case. ((Pember, et.al). He was granted a writ of certiorari. In 1966, the Supreme Court mandated in Sheppard v. Maxwell the measures judges can take to minimize the press influence.
As a result of the Sheppard trial, the Supreme Court ordered judges in future cases to take precautions to avoid a prejudicial atmosphere generated by the media, thus changing the way the press was allowed to cover court proceedings. The new measures authorized judges to issue a motion of continuance, delaying the trial date to wait for publicity to fade; require a change of venue; conduct a vigorous jury selection to eliminate potential jurors who had been swayed strongly by the media; sequester the jury so it would not be subjected to press coverage during the case; give deliberate instructions to warn jurors about media influence; and issue gag orders to restrict the media legally from releasing information about the case and silence orders to prevent both defense and prosecution from speaking to the press prior to and during trial. (Pember, et.al 1).
Pember, Don R., & Clay Calvert. “Mass Media Law.” McGraw Hill 2005. Pgs. 420 –422.
In The Court Of Common Pleas Cuyahoga County, Ohio. STATE OF OHIO CASE NO. CR 64571. Plaintiff vs. Samuel H. Sheppard, Defendant. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/
Sam Reese Sheppard. “Seeking the Truth.”
United States Supreme Court, No. 490, 384 U.S. 333.