When security guard Richard Jewell discovered a suspicious-looking backpack as part of his routine search of the Centennial Olympic Park grounds prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, his quick thinking helped save countless lives. After notifying police, Jewell helped evacuate the park grounds before the backpack, which contained a powerful pipe bomb, could explode. Despite the efforts of Jewell and other guards, over one hundred people were killed but the death count was far lower than it might have been. Still, despite being initially hailed as a hero, Richard Jewell found himself being subjected to "trial by media" after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he was a "person of interest" in the bombing. While the FBI investigation went nowhere, Jewell continued to be roasted by the media and even became the butt of repeated jokes by comedians such as Jay Leno who referred to him as the "Una-doofus." While Jewell was eventually vindicated, he later sued numerous news agencies for their biased coverage with most of these cases being settled for unspecified amounts.
While cases of "trial by media" are hardly uncommon, especially after high-profile crimes, the long-term damage resulting from this kind of publicity is often impossible to measure. But how does this kind of media exposure affect the outcome of criminal trials? Even though the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with similar laws around the world, are meant to guarantee the right of all defendants to a "fair and impartial jury". ensuring this can be impossible at times. Not only are jurors expected to base their decision solely on evidence presented at trial, but the principle of impartiality means that they cannot have any prior opinions about the case they're deciding, including whether or not the defendant is guilty.
Still, as previous research has demonstrated, news stories about recent crimes are typically skewed and one-sided, often based on the assumption that the defendant is already guilty. To make matters worse, these stories often include prejudicial information that is rarely allowed during the actual criminal trial. This kind of evidence can include the accused's past criminal history (whether or not it's relevant to the case), sensationalized descriptions of the crime, and inflammatory statements by arresting officers or prosecutors. Add in the often emotional interviews with relatives of the deceased in the case, most of whom openly state their belief that the accused is guilty, and most people with an interest in the case typically have their minds made up before the jury is even selected.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.