Free Press v. Fair Trial: Supreme Court Decisions since 1807

By Douglas S. Campbell | Go to book overview

Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia

Richmond Newspapers, Inc., et al. v. Commonwealth of Virginia Docket No. 79-243 448 U.S. 555, 65 L.Ed.2d 973, 100 S.Ct. 2814 ( 1980)

Argued February 19, 1980. Decided July 2, 1980.


Background

After Gannett v. DePasquak ( 1979) the Court was eager to look again very soon at the issue of public access to criminal trials in order to address other important aspects of the conflict between a free press and a fair trial. Although Gannett was concerned with pretrial proceedings, this case focuses on the trial itself and so once again is deferred the question of at what point for First Amendment purposes a trial begins.

The right to attend a criminal trial is founded upon the First, Ninth, and, for state courts, Fourteenth Amendments. The essential question asked by the Court is this: Do the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, singly or in combination, give members of the public a right of access to criminal trials even if this right is not asserted by the participants in the litigation? While the Court found such an implicit right in the First Amendment's explicit right of a free press, it also carefully pointed out that this access is not absolute. Indeed, only two years later, in Globe v. Superior Court ( 1982), the Court set forth conditions for closing to the public certain parts of a criminal trial.


Circumstances

The partially clothed body with multiple stab wounds of Lillian Emma Keller, manager of the Holly Court Motel, Ashland, Virginia, was found in her apartment at about 6 P.M., December 2, 1975. The apartment adjoined the front office and another apartment occupied by Howard Franklin Bittorf, the brother-in-law of John Paul Stevenson, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland. Stevenson was charged with the murder. The police found Stevenson's wallet

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