Constitution Day debates fair trials

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,”  Amendment I of the United States Constitution states.

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” Article VI of the United States’ Constitution says.

Brittany Murphy / Opinions Editor: The Journalism Department put on the fourth annual discussion panel to commemorate Constitution Day in the Centennial Hall at Keene State College, September 17, 2013.

Brittany Murphy / Opinions Editor: The Journalism Department put on the fourth annual discussion panel to commemorate Constitution Day in the Centennial Hall at Keene State College, September 17, 2013.

Although the press has all rights to be present in a courtroom covering trials, there lies a tension between reporters and lawyers when it comes to attending trials and choosing an “impartial” jury, according to a group of journalists and attorneys at the “Got Rights?” panel held September 17 at Keene State College.

“We led the charge,” KSC journalism professor, Mark Timney, said.

The right to a fair trial and free press were among the topics discussed at KSC’s fourth annual Constitution Day “Got Rights?” panel. The panel was held in Centennial Hall, and had a turnout of approximately 50 people. This year’s focus was on the first and sixth amendments.

The panelists included KSC Journalism Professors Chad Nye and Marianne Salcetti, former N.H. Attorney General and Cheshire County Attorney, Peter Heed and Executive Director of N.H. Civil Liberties Union, Devon Chaffee. The N.H. Civil Liberties Union is an organization that defends the freedoms declared in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

The topics discussed at the panel ranged from pre-trial publicity to the impact social media has on trials.

The panel opened up with a discussion about the tension in a courtroom due to press presence. According to Nye, the founding fathers of the Constitution did not think there would be any tension between courts and the press. “I don’t think our founders lost much sleep over this,” Nye said.

Brittany Murphy/ Opinions Editor: Cheshire County Attorney Peter Heed at the “Got Rights?” panel Sept. 17, 2013.

Brittany Murphy/ Opinions Editor: Cheshire County Attorney Peter Heed at the “Got Rights?” panel Sept. 17, 2013.

Due to the established tension between lawyers and journalists, these “public” trials have become anything but public.  With private trials occurring in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it is very difficult to have press coverage allowed. According to Chaffee, who has been to a trial at Guantanamo Bay, in order to reach the bay area, military plane escorts are necessary. Also, Chaffee said the press did not have full access to the trial. Coming from a legal standpoint, Heed said he would like to have more press coverage in the courtroom.

When it comes to sensationalizing trials, technology and pre-trial publicity are partially to blame for the tension, according to the panel. In many cases, the taping of trials is not permitted. Nowadays, with the technology available, journalists are finding other ways to get information from trials out to the public.

Recently, Massachusetts mob boss Whitey Bulger was on trial. Taping was not allowed during this trial. Instead, reporters tweeted what was going on in the courtroom as they were happening. “They performed a real public service,” Salcetti said. Chaffee said she would like to see more of that done.

With pre-trial publicity, Salcetti said one part of the issue is the “glamorization” of the accused and the attribution of the accused’s personality rather than the issue at hand. Examples of this are: The O.J. Simpson case, the Amanda Knox case or the Manson murder case. Salcetti presented the Sam Sheppard case as an example to the audience. In July of 1954, Sheppard’s wife had been stabbed to death. It seemed to be quite obvious Sheppard was to blame, but due to the hype brought about to this case, the Supreme Court ultimately overturned the conviction, said Salcetti.

Heed brought up a more recent example, the George Zimmerman case. Heed said technology played a role on impacting the jurors. KSC Communications Professor Michael Wakefield questioned the jury’s right to search information about the trial. Heed said this was one of the issues with the advances in technology. Heed said it is difficult to prevent a jury member from using Google to compare what they are hearing to what the press is releasing.

Among the other topics discussed, the panelists also touched upon the pros and cons of having an impartial jury, the advantages a defense receives from gag orders.

All in all, the guest panelists felt the presentation was successful. Peter Heed described the event as “excellent”. “What I liked about it was we had different viewpoints,” Heed said.

“I think people were really engaged,” Chaffee said. The only drawback, according to Chaffee, was not being able to spend more time discussing the right to an impartial jury. The Executive Director of NHCLU said she thought the event was excellent and that she was impressed with the audience turnout. “I’m glad you passed out constitutions instead of free pizza,” Chaffee said jokingly.

 

 

Shannon Flynn can be contacted at 

sflynn@keene-equinox.com

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