Academic journal article Social Education

Balancing Act: First and Sixth Amendment Rights in High-Profile Cases

Academic journal article Social Education

Balancing Act: First and Sixth Amendment Rights in High-Profile Cases

Article excerpt

WE OFTEN HEAR that democracy is hot a spectator sport. This is certainly true of trial by jury, a cornerstone of our democracy, which depends on the willingness of Americans from all walks of life to devote themselves to the difficult work of determining another person's guilt or innocence of a crime. But the work of those citizens selected to serve on juries has become a spectator sport for the rest of us, especially in cases involving a celebrity or a crime of particular infamy. As our interest in--and media coverage of--high-profile trials grows, so do concerns over the ability of juries to do their work impartially and give the defendant the fair trial guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Last year, the trial of Scott Peterson for the murders of his wife and unborn son dominated the news, and a national television audience could watch a USA Network docudrama offering a fictionalized account of the case that was aired during Peterson's jury trial. This year, the child molestation trial of Michael Jackson has captured headlines, and viewers of the E! Network can watch actors perform daily reenactments of scenes from the trial (television cameras were banned from the courtroom). The E! Online website also offers a "scorecard," tallying points for the prosecution and defense, and a "Meet the Jurors" feature that provides a "rundown of the men and women chosen to decide Michael Jackson's fate." (1)

Media attention to famous trials is not new. Just over 50 years ago, the trial of suburban Cleveland doctor Sam Sheppard, accused of murdering his wife, became one of the first media spectacles of the television age. Sheppard's case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Sheppard had been denied a fair trial because of potential juror bias arising from the largely uncontrolled media frenzy that surrounded the case. (2) More recently, the murder trial of football star and movie actor O.J. Simpson set a new benchmark for high-profile trials. The Simpson trial became a national event, beginning in 1994 with the slow-speed police chase of Simpson's Ford Bronco that drew more than 90 million viewers and ending with the delivery of the trial jury's verdict of not guilty, watched or heard by an estimated 140 million Americans on October 3, 1995.

The Simpson trial added momentum to a trend that had already begun gathering force: namely, the treatment of high-profile cases as a blend of news and entertainment. As media coverage of high-profile cases continues to intensify, so do tensions between two of our most fundamental constitutional rights. The first is the criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury. The second is the media's First Amendment freedoms to observe and report on the trial. These rights are not necessarily in conflict. One of the ways in which the Sixth Amendment protects the defendant is by guaranteeing that the trial will be public and subject to the scrutiny of an independent press.

Media coverage can, however, have a detrimental effect on the defendant's ability to get a fair trial, especially when it exposes potential jurors to information or opinions that might predispose them against the defendant before the trial begins. At what point do the media's First Amendment rights jeopardize the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights? How can these potentially competing rights be balanced? Do any other parties--jurors, for example, or witnesses--also have rights that might affect this balance? The courts have not had an easy time answering these questions.

This article considers three issues that have emerged as points of conflict in high-profile trials. First, how broad is the public's right of access to criminal trials? Second, what limits, if any, can courts impose on media coverage of a trial? And third, should courts be able to distinguish between news-oriented reporting on a trial and other, more entertainment-oriented forms of media coverage? …

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