Weighing Justice and Fanfare in Jackson Trial ; as Jury Selection Begins, a Frenzy of Coverage Prompts Questions about the Media and Fair Trials

By Kris Axtman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Weighing Justice and Fanfare in Jackson Trial ; as Jury Selection Begins, a Frenzy of Coverage Prompts Questions about the Media and Fair Trials


Kris Axtman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On most days, the Superior Court in Santa Maria, Calif., quietly handles speeding tickets, drug offenses, and murder cases.

But Monday, with the start of jury selection in the case against pop star Michael Jackson, hordes of reporters, TV crews, and radio stations will be roaming the courthouse halls, desperate for information.

Another high-profile celebrity trial begins.

It seems the list of sensational court cases keeps growing along with the media's appetite for them. But many worry that such intense coverage is transforming a process that was designed to satisfy blind Justice, and not a gossip-hungry populace.

For lawyers and judges working under the public's gaze, it means a temptation to posture as much as to prosecute and defend. For defendants, it means a desire to countermand negative images. And for jurors, it means the nearly impossible task of putting aside months, if not years, of publicity.

"Media scrutiny has taken a major toll on the interest of justice," says Martin Pollner, a New York attorney who has represented high-profile clients such as Steven Seagal, Naomi Campbell, Diana Ross, and Denise Rich. "It has changed the entire dynamic of the process."

How these challenges have grown - and spurred responses by judges and attorneys - is a tale that began long before O.J. Simpson and his white Ford Bronco.

Mr. Pollner, like many others, points to the 1995 Simpson case as the beginning of the modern obsession with celebrity trials. From the low-speed chase across L.A. freeways to constant coverage of the trial, the case brought courtroom drama into American homes as never before. Of course, the obsession with high-profile litigation stretches back to the nation's beginnings.

In Puritan times, for instance, witch trials and executions were community events. America's first serial killer, Dr. Henry Holmes, drew intense media attention when he went on trial in 1895 for murder - as did Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who killed a teenager in 1924.

But no case up to that point created a frenzy like the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925. It was the country's first major media event: a duel between science and religion that began when biology teacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee law. Hundreds of reporters came, and the circus atmosphere on the courthouse steps included a man in a chimp suit debating fire-and-brimstone preachers.

"Americans have always viewed the courtroom as public theater," says Dirk Gibson, a communications and journalism professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "The danger is that unrestricted pretrial publicity can literally tip the balance."

The past several years have seen plenty of criminal cases involving celebrities, including Kobe Bryant, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Winona Ryder, Martha Stewart, and Jayson Williams. "In every one of these cases, you have to balance between the public's right to know and the defendant's right to a fair trial," says Melvin Schweitzer, who heads a firm specializing in public relations for high-profile cases.

Still, the difficulties of balancing constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press against the right to a fair trial are worth it, says Roberta Brackman, a Minneapolis lawyer formerly with the NBC News legal team. …

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