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Media zap right to fair trial: To wit, Casey Anthony et al.
As one who represented Casey Anthony during negotiations on whether Florida would seek the death penalty, I think it's time that we evaluate the American media coverage of this hitherto unknown twentysomething single mother. Anthony is accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee Marie.
Why look at media coverage? Because she has the same rights under the U.S. Constitution as you and I do. And those rights are being disrespected and trampled in what may well be a permanent loss of not only her right to a fair trial, but yours and mine as well.
This case has become a witch hunt — a trial by media — and it has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Casey Anthony is a moneymaker. Her case has become the subject of daily — sometimes hourly — national media coverage. The most minute details of the Anthony case can be discovered every night on cable TV and anytime, day or night, on any one of a growing number of Web sites. The fact that advertising dollars accompany most of this coverage cannot be ignored.
Our rights are being compromised because the same people who read the tabloids and follow the coverage for the latest tidbits on the investigation and prosecution of Casey Anthony will make up a part of the jury pool for her trial. And the more exposure on the Web and in the media, the less likely that jurors unacquainted with the case will be found.
Add to this the media suggestion, even invitation, to form judgments of the defendant's guilt or innocence, and the blatant disrespect of our constitutional right to a fair trial — and the presumption of innocence we should all hold dear — goes out the window.
When I voice this concern, people like Nancy Grace point to O.J. Simpson. He got coverage like no other criminal defendant in this country, much of it presuming his guilt, and he was found innocent. The trial by media didn't hurt him, they say.
However, no one mentions Richard Jewell. No one talks about Sam Sheppard or John and Patsy Ramsey. And they should.
Richard Jewell was an Atlanta security guard working during the 1996 Summer Olympics when he discovered a pipe bomb, cleared the area and called police. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell was quickly vilified as a terrorist. He was ultimately exonerated and successfully sued several media companies. Eleven years later, Jewell died of heart disease at 44.
Sam Sheppard was a physician convicted in 1954 of the second-degree murder of his pregnant wife; his story became the basis of the television series The Fugitive. The media bombarded the case from the moment the murder was discovered. Sheppard spent 10 years behind bars before his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, based upon his trial by media and the denial of his due process.
John and Patsy Ramsey were exonerated just last summer by Colorado authorities after their trial by media. In 1996, their daughter, JonBenét, 6, was found beaten and strangled in the family's basement in Boulder. The Ramseys blamed an intruder for her death; the media targeted the parents. No one was ever charged in the case, and Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006 at age 49.
Even before Google, cable news or blogs, the possible juror prejudice resulting from overzealous media was serious enough that the Supreme Court heard the Florida case. In Murphy v. Florida, Thurgood Marshall wrote: "If the 'general atmosphere in the community or courtroom is sufficiently inflammatory,' the community can be so influenced against the defendant 'as to impeach the indifference of jurors who displayed no animus of their own.'"
This is exactly what we must consider in high-profile cases: Has the community been so influenced by media coverage that there can be no possibility of separating the merely informed juror from the juror who has already decided guilt or innocence from public "facts"?
This is not an issue of adjudicating guilt or innocence. Our constitutional right to due process — our right to a fair trial — is being weakened by the commercial incentives of media witch hunts exemplified by the Casey Anthony case. We need to recognize and stop this attack upon us all.
Terence "Terry" Lenamon is a Florida criminal defense attorney with an office in Miami.