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Criminal Trial - The Atmosphere Surrounding The Trial

publicity courtroom prejudicial defendant

Due process demands that the trial a defendant receives be a fair one. It is obvious that even if a trial is technically correct in terms of evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, and other rulings during the trial itself, a trial can still be unfair because it takes place in an atmosphere that is prejudicial to the defendant.

In Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966), the Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction because the trial had violated due process in a case that, one hopes, represents a high-water mark in terms of a prejudicial trial atmosphere. In that case the publicity for a local murder trial was pervasive and, more important, it was very prejudicial; numerous editorials insisted on the defendant's guilt, and even news accounts were sometimes slanted against the defendant. In addition, the newspapers reported sensational rumors or "evidence" that was in fact never disclosed at the trial. Not only were the jurors not protected from this barrage of prejudicial publicity, but reporters themselves were disruptive even during trial proceedings as they moved in and around the courtroom, creating so much noise that it was difficult for witnesses or lawyers to be heard. In the Court's words, the trial was conducted in a "carnival atmosphere."

Controlling the courtroom. Many occurrences in a courtroom or courthouse can prove distracting to a jury or otherwise threaten a fair trial. Examples include reporters who move around the courtroom and even attempt to handle or photograph exhibits during recesses; spectators who are noisy or who try to intimidate particular witnesses by comments in the court-room or threatening gestures in the hall outside it, and overcrowding, which interferes with the entry or exit of witnesses and may precipitate disputes between spectators over the right to a seat.

Although there is no one solution to all these problems, a trial judge has the right to control the courtroom and the courthouse premises to help ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial. Given the limited size of most courtrooms, a judge may have to restrict the number of spectators or media representatives who can attend the trial, and may find it necessary in certain highly publicized cases to require the use of a ticket system to prevent corridors from being thronged with would-be spectators. It may also be necessary to bar spectators or media representatives from entering or leaving a crowded courtroom except during recesses.

The problem of pretrial publicity. One problem that has gotten worse for trial judges in recent years is the problem of how best to guarantee a defendant a fair trial in a high-publicity case. In such cases there can be pervasive and highly prejudicial publicity about the offense or the suspect in the period leading up to trial and this may continue even during the trial.

At one time, one weapon for countering prejudical pretrial publicity was for the trial judge to order a change of venue so that the trial would take place at a distant location from the county or city in which the crime occurred (Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. (1963)). But this is far less an effective antidote today. The concentration of new sources, the rise of cable and satellite television systems, and the ability of newspapers to publish immediately on the Internet make it harder to insulate jurors from possibly prejudicial trial publicity.

Criminal Trial - The Steps In A Criminal Trial [next] [back] Criminal Trial - Civil Versus Criminal Trends

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