Howard R. Marshall v. United States of America
Docket No. 1959-383 360 U.S. 310, 35 L.Ed.2d 1250, 79 S.Ct. 1171 ( 1959)
Argued March 25 and 26, 1959. Decided June 15, 1959.
By 1959, no justice would argue against the proposition that an impartial jury is central to the concept of a fair trial. Indeed, when the middle of the twentieth century arrived, jurists had developed numerous complex rules governing the trial process so that jurors would not be exposed before or during a trial to prejudicial information. Some of these rules developed by the jurists were necessary because the First Amendment precludes courts from controlling information printed by the press. That is to say, trial judges were often faced with the difficult problem of what to do about the existence of clearly prejudicial information that could reach jurors from the pages of the press.
In this case, the very same information a judge ruled could not be introduced into evidence during a trial because it would prejudice the jurors nevertheless reached the jury when it was printed in a newspaper. Following the traditional practice of the time, the judge allowed the case to continue after he polled the members of the jury and received assurances from those who read the news story that they could still decide the case solely on the merits of the evidence introduced in court and that the news story did not prejudice them against the defendant.
The judge's action raises a question addressed for the first time by the Court. Are jurors just as likely to be prejudiced against a defendant by reading information in the press as they are if they hear that information in court? If the answer is no, then the threat to a fair trial from prejudicial news stories may not be as great as many jurists fear. If the answer is yes, then the threat from news stories to a fair trial may be so severe that it requires declaring a mistrial.