The Intrigue of High Profile Cases
A Balancing Act of Rights
Trials, evidence, juries, and verdicts. Lately, it doesn’t matter whether or not you work in the legal field – we are all accustomed to the media frenzy that surrounds high-profile cases, particularly if those cases involve the loss of life or matters of social justice. And we, the public, do have a need to be informed. But what if our right to possess the facts of the case impedes the defendant’s right to a fair trial? Whose rights do we cater to more?
A few high-profile cases with far-reaching impacts stand out over the last several decades.
“We are all familiar with at least some of the facts surrounding the trials of OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, or the Menendez brothers,” says Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren attorney Joe Cargile. “The media coverage around those trials was intense, but it seems like the coverage around major trials has reached another level in 2022. Before the first witness is even sworn, the public can get locked in on a case because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.”
So how does the court offer a fair trial when the big cases have been sensationalized before the trial even begins?
Options for Fair Trials
There is the option to request a change of venue. A judge might allow a trial to move out of a community because of the need for an unbiased jury. However, Cargile warns that even with large, highly publicized cases “it is nearly impossible to give high-profile defendants a fair trial.”
The court can release a gag order restricting certain media coverage. These orders are often weighed with important First Amendment considerations, but they are becoming more and more difficult to enforce. “Nowadays so many people and organizations have the ability to spread information or opinions on social media. It can be difficult to evaluate the credibility of this information,” says Cargile.
Another option is to sequester the jury. This is the isolation of a jury to avoid accidental or deliberate tainting of their opinions by exposing them to outside influence or information that is not admissible in court.
“Many times, before a jury is even chosen, the potential jurors already have a preconceived notion based on all the media coverage they have seen. They are leaning a certain way on day one – whether someone is guilty or not guilty,” explains Drew Tuggle, another lawyer with Whitehurst, Blackburn & Warren. “Sequestration of the jurors is usually the best way to prevent them from getting information about the trial that shouldn’t come into the decision-making process.”
What Observers Need to Remember
As we watch coverage around high-profile trials, we hear opinions about what the evidence means from journalists, television personalities, and the uninformed. Keep in mind, “The jury isn’t given all this information,” Cargile says. “Discussions by commentators about a high-profile trial are taking things into consideration that may not be presented to the jury for a reason.”
As a viewer watching on television or following online, we likely have more information than the jurors do based on what is admissible in court.
“But that doesn’t mean that the information that we as viewers are receiving about the trial itself is any more or less credible,” Cargile adds.
“Keep an open mind,” says Tuggle. “We have the tendency to live by the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ instead of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Be careful and read diligently. Pick information from different sources. Make sure you are fully informed before you develop an opinion.”
The Balancing Act
High-profile cases and the publicity involved can best be summarized as a balancing act. On one side, there is the duty to keep the public informed. On the other side, we must consider the impact trial publicity can have on the integrity of a case. In the end, Americans have a constitutional right to a fair trial, and how that right is exercised in an ever-evolving age of technology and instant information will continue to change and develop as the world does.