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Decades-old case shows media coverage biasing criminal trials

In 1954, a pregnant woman in the Midwest was beaten to death in her own home. Her husband, who was a well-respected doctor, had said he was asleep in the living room at the time of the beating. When he awoke, he saw a bushy-haired intruder fleeing the scene.

The doctor had no criminal record, but police did discover that he had been having an affair. Because of the affair, they did not accept his version of events and instead charged him with his wife's murder. If this story sounds strangely familiar, it is because it was the loose inspiration for the television show "The Fugitive." But even more importantly, it was one of the first examples of how sensationalized and saturating media coverage can unfairly influence the outcome of a criminal trial.

Long before the trials of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, the press completely sensationalized the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard. Media outlets wrote daily reports about the trial from an angle that presupposed Sheppard's guilt. Because jurors had full and unfettered access to media reports, it should come as no surprise that they found him guilty.

Sheppard's conviction was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, based on his argument that the media bias had denied him a fair trial. But as you can imagine, the public regarded him with suspicion for the rest of his life. DNA evidence tested in 1998 showed that another man had indeed been at the crime scene. But Sam Sheppard had passed away in 1970.

When potential jurors are screened, it is now common practice to ask them if they have been following news reports about the case. The goal is to determine if they have already made up their mind about a defendant's guilt or innocence. In particularly high-profile cases, jurors may be sequestered to prevent access to news coverage and other outside influences.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find jurors who have not already been influenced by news coverage. The media is simply too pervasive. But cases like this one are a reminder that we must at least try to assemble a fair and impartial jury. The court of public opinion should not have significant influence in the actual courtroom.

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