Pressing for Justice


Pressing for Justice Free Press and Fair Trial Edited by Chilton R Bush Georgia 136 pp $3 75 Reviewed by Russell Warren Howe Guest scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center,...

...Pressing for Justice Free Press and Fair Trial Edited by Chilton R Bush Georgia 136 pp $3 75 Reviewed by Russell Warren Howe Guest scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington As every law student knows, juries were orginally devised to insure that the common man would be judged by his peers, rather than by his lords, thus eliminating anti-commoner prejudice Yet as Free Press and Fair Trial perhaps unwittingly stresses, jurors have long since become the dangerous amateurs in an otherwise professional process A judge friend of mine once put it well "It I were guilty and pleading innocent, I'd prefer a juiy But if I were genuinely innocent, I'd want a judge or ludges, on their own " The problem of whether Clifford Irving, for example, could have possibly received a fair jury trial had he been innocent, is rooted in the virtually guaranteed fallibility of at least a minority among a dozen jurors Judging from their own accounts, modern American veniremen even when urban and educated, do not differ much from the provincials Andre Gide portrayed in Memoiie... la cow d'assiie This collection of essays, edited by Chilton Bush director of the News Research Center of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, attempts to examine the effect of pretrial reporting on U S juries As might be expected, defense attorneys are among the most concerned about the problem But the record shows that even in highly publicized cases relatively few lawyers take such precautions as pressing for a change in venue, lequesting veniremen fiom another jurisdiction, asking severance of jointly accused defendants, or seeking continuances to allow the effects of publicity to decline Apparently it is felt that none of these devices offer much redress in trials that have become major coast-to-coast news stories Almost invariably, though, attorneys make full use of their right to interrogate and reject prospective jurors, and to insist on the sequestration of juries during important trials Discussing the question with judges, Fred S Siebert a lawyer and Dean Emeritus of Communications Arts at Michigan State, found that many of them believed their own admonitions were usually enough to banish from the jurors' consideration a defendant's alleged confession or previous criminal record Nonetheless, 61 per cent of those questioned thought that the pretrial reporting ot James Earl Ray's past history was "inappropriate," and 96 per cent opposed the publication of confessions or refusals to take lie-detector tests Although press-bar codes, especially regarding pretrial proceedings, are becoming more common, their absence in many states would seem to be grounds for legislation Geoige Hough, a journalism professor at Michigan State, shows m his essay on "Felonies, Jury Trials and News Reports" that in Detroit at least newspapers often break the old rule of never starting a criminal case without closing it The trials of many persons whose arrests are reported go uncovered, even when they are acquitted or the charges against them dropped In Britain, this would be grounds for defamation damages French newspapers still run headlines like "The monster that assaulted little Jacqueline in Tours is rendered harmless"—meaning that a suspect had been arrested for a widely publicized crime American headline styles are less quaintly Hugo-esque, but m an equivalent instance it would be permissible to report that John Doe's arrest seemed to have closed the case, and that he had been released from a state reformatory six weeks before Curiously, the study ignores the effect that biased pretrail reporting has on the innocent, even when there is no jury and acquittal is ultimately secured The present permissibility gives the editor and reporter total disci etion over how fair they need be, and the acquitted person must live with what they decide To return to the Irving case, the editors of Time's cover story on the subject clearly assumed that his guilt was incontrovertible, so that no judicial harm would come from their throwing in irrelevancies such as his philandering, the Ibiza lifestyle, etc This, however, was on the same level as a Southern newspaper reporting that a culprit is black to show how naturally he came to crime Similarly, press criticism of President Nixon's outburst against Chailes Manson, while justified, was somewhat hypocritical In truth, the reporter is often as reprehensible as the average person in wanting what John F Kennedy called "the luxury of opinion without the discomfort of thought " Arrest is simply associated with guilt in most people's minds Writing on "The Press, the Jury, and the Behavonal Sciences," Waltei Wilcox, a journalism professor at UCLA, notes that people form opinions on a minimum of facts, interpreted according to their own psychological needs they are usually drawn to beliefs that seem to have social approval, and are conservative about changing their minds In pandering to the apparently universal human need to persecute, the pi ess does society a disservice The evil it reports of people lives after the edition, the good is oft interred m a day or so It is strange that the rough "range justice" exercised by the press m reporting sub ]udice matters before and during a trial has not been more effectively curbed by statute Though British libel laws have been found to favor "professional" plaintiffs and are now being eased, the English press has never suggested that anything would be gained from increased freedom in reporting criminal cases, enabling editors to "try' and condemn defendants before judge and jury get to them That is, I think, a pioper posture The overriding consideration of the press should be the presumption ot innocence, a concern that in no way infringes on the freedom to report guilt when it is established...

Vol. 55 • May 1972 • No. 9

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