In our last post, we began a discussion about the 1954 murder trial of a man named Sam Sheppard. The Ohio physician was charged with murdering his pregnant wife, despite very little physical evidence linking him to the crime. Police also refused to believe his account of being knocked out and waking up to see an intruder fleeing his home.
This case was the loose inspiration for the television show “The Fugitive,” but it was also one of the first criminal trials to become a nationwide media sensation. Newspapers from around the country ran stories about the case and gave regular updates on the trial. Worst of all, many newspapers decided to premise their reporting on the assumption that Sheppard was guilty.
None of this may sound unusual by today’s standards, but this non-stop coverage was unusual for the time. Moreover, courts did not take the same jury-selection precautions that they do now. Most or all jurors came into the Sheppard case having heard a lot about it, and they were not sequestered during the trial. This means they had full access to the same biased reporting that the general public had.
Unsurprisingly, Sam Sheppard was convicted. He spent 10 years in prison while trying to appeal his case. In 1966, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, on the grounds that the jury had been unfairly influenced by the media. Mr. Sheppard died just four years after being acquitted.
In the late 1990s, DNA evidence taken from the crime scene was tested (which obviously was not possible at the time). It revealed that another man’s DNA was found at the crime scene – a fact which strongly suggests that Sheppard was telling the truth. Unfortunately, it came far too late to help him.
If there is a silver lining to the Sam Sheppard case, it is that courts are now much more cognizant of the potential for media bias. As such, they try to select jurors who have little to no knowledge of the case they are going to hear. Jurors are often instructed to avoid all forms of news media during the trial. In some high-profile cases, jurors are even sequestered to ensure that they can’t access news coverage.
Is our new system perfect? Not at all. Media influence continues to be a problem for would-be jurors. But with these safeguards in place, there is at least a better chance that defendants will receive a fair trial by an unbiased jury.