Recently, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot and killed by a police officer. According to NBC News, days of rioting has ensued as the community expresses outrage over the incident. The situation has played out over national news, giving the entire country a glimpse into what may have happened and turning many people against the police officer who shot the teen.
In Minnesota and across the nation, there is a presumption of innocence that is supposed to protect the accused. However, with 24-hour news coverage of major homicides and other cases, many people – including potential jurors – may begin to form an opinion before an investigation or trial even begins.
Guilty under public opinion
Under state and federal laws, people who face criminal charges are innocent until they are convicted. Prosecutors have the burden of proving that the suspect committed the crime. Should any reasonable doubt exist, a jury is supposed to return an acquittal. This is an essential part of due process, which guarantees defendants a fair trial.
In some cases, people may not even go to trial for a crime but the public assumes they are guilty. Woody Allen has been accused of molesting his then-7-year-old daughter. The Conversation reports that due to the young girl’s age, she never testified in court. In early 2014, the now-grown woman published a letter accusing Allen of the abuse. While the presumption of Allen’s innocence has given him legal protection, he is still largely viewed as guilty of the crime.
Deemed innocent but viewed as guilty
Even when people are acquitted, the media may have depicted the case in such a way that the general public views suspects as guilty. For example, Casey Anthony made headlines when her 2-year-old daughter went missing, and the girl’s skeletal remains were found months later in the woods. According to CBS News, the media played nonstop coverage of the case, analyzing details that included the following:
- Anthony changed her story several times.
- A strand of hair in Anthony’s trunk matched her daughter’s hair and showed evidence of death.
- Anthony’s trunk smelled strongly of decomposition.
- Anthony’s internet search history included “how to make chloroform” and “neck breaking.”
CBS News reported at the time that due to the excessive coverage, Anthony may not receive a fair trial. Anthony was found not guilty of first-degree murder, child abuse and aggravated manslaughter of a child. However, public opinion has largely convicted her. According to ABA Journal, Anthony’s attorney has blamed the media gave the public a distorted view of the woman, who is still reviled by many.
As long as the media dissects every major case, there may be issues with defendants getting a fair trial and maintaining a presumption of innocence following the outcome of their case.