Americans love a good crime story, and “true crime” seems to be especially popular. For a variety of reasons, certain criminal cases gain national attention and become a media circus. Consider the Casey Anthony trial several years ago or the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, a media spotlight makes it difficult or nearly impossible for defendants to receive a fair trial. When allegations are particularly salacious, news outlets may be covering a story non-stop from the very beginning. When it comes time to select a jury, most everyone has already heard about the story on the news.
The problem of media-influenced bias is now worse than ever, but the problem itself isn’t new. In fact, a crime committed 62 years ago this month is one of the most famous examples of what can go wrong when the press decides to take an active role in the judicial process.
In 1954, a woman named Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death in her home just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, said he had been asleep in the living room when he heard his wife’s screams. He rushed in to help but was knocked unconscious. His memory was hazy and incomplete, but he said he awoke in time to see a bushy-haired man fleeing the scene.
Sam Sheppard was a well-respected doctor with no criminal history whatsoever. But when police learned that Sheppard had been involved in a long-term affair, they decided that he was the chief suspect in the murder of his wife, who was pregnant at the time.
This story may sound familiar, and that’s because it was the loose inspiration for the television show “The Fugitive.” Before that, however, it was a highly sensationalized trial that played out in the media and almost certainly biased the jury.
Please check back later this week as we continue this conversation.