Can Media Coverage Affect the Outcome of a Criminal Trial in Utah?

Now more than ever, the media plays a huge role in our everyday lives. We are almost constantly consuming some form of media, and it can sometimes affect the outcome of newsworthy criminal trials.

If you have ever watched coverage of a high-profile criminal case, you know just how big of an impact the media can have on a case. Depending on when media coverage begins, it can make finding impartial jurors difficult. Jurors and witnesses might be unduly influenced by media coverage, and defendants often face public outrage from unflattering or unfair reporting. In short, media coverage might make achieving a fair and just criminal trial harder. Talk to your lawyer about how you can prevent the media from interfering with your criminal trial. Avoid social media like the plague, instruct close friends and family to avoid speaking to media outlets, and only discuss the case with your lawyer. If the media seems to be unduly influencing your case, talk to your attorney about what you can do to set things right.

Call Overson Law, PLLC at (801) 758-2287 to get a private review of your case for no charge from our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers.

How Media Coverage in Utah Might Affect a Criminal Trial

While many of us seem to be plugged into the media at almost all times, it is not always a good thing. Criminal trials frequently garner media attention, and coverage sometimes gets out of hand. Excessive or unfair media coverage may affect the outcome of a criminal trial.

Finding an Impartial Jury

Arguably, many criminal cases attract very little media fanfare. However, some trials are more high-profile and are picked up by various news outlets. Some cases become so famous they are considered defining moments in media history. Think of how the O.J. Simpson trial captivated Americans and continues to be talked about to this day.

Widespread news coverage might make it difficult to find jurors who have not heard of the case or can remain fair and impartial. Having a trial by jury is a hallmark of the American legal system. Defendants often prefer trials before juries instead of only in front of a judge, as juries might be more moved by emotional elements of your case.

Finding a new venue for the trial might help defendants find an impartial jury However, this is not always so easy. The venue for a criminal trial is determined according to strict rules set out under Utah Code § 76-1-202(1). If the criminal offenses in question fall under the court’s jurisdiction, a venue change might be hard to obtain.

According to the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 29(c)(1), we can file a pretrial motion challenging the venue and explaining why an impartial jury is impossible at the current venue. The court may review the motion and determine whether a change of venue is warranted.

Even if media coverage is widespread, that fact alone might not be enough to prove that a jury cannot be impartial. Also note that if we do not challenge the venue in a timely manner, the issue is considered waived, and we cannot change the venue of the trial.

If news coverage of the trial is too widespread, our Riverton criminal defense lawyers can also look into a bench trial. Bench trials have advantages and disadvantages, so this may or may not be bad for your case.

Undue Influence on Jurors and Witnesses

If a jury has been selected, it might be difficult to shield them from news coverage of the trial. If a juror gets a hold of a news story about the trial, they might learn information not meant for jurors.

For example, if certain evidence is excluded from a high-profile criminal case, it might be reported in the local or even national news. The jury is not supposed to ever learn about this evidence. If they pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV, they might inadvertently learn about the evidence. Judges may instruct jurors to avoid the news to avoid this kind of problem, which is often considered a sufficient solution. However, evidence of tainted jurors should be brought to the judge’s attention immediately.

In some cases, alternate jurors are pre-selected for this very reason. In others, the case might be declared a mistrial, and we must start over, especially if we run out of alternate, un-influenced jurors. Juries may be sequestered to avoid undue influence, meaning they are housed in a hotel and kept away from the media during the trial. This is unusual in Utah and only happens in extreme circumstances. For example, a jury might be sequestered if jurors receive threats or are otherwise intimidated.

Witnesses might also be affected by the media. Witnesses might adjust their testimony to align more with media coverage. This might be done on purpose or subconsciously. Memory is fickle, and the media can affect how witnesses remember things. This can be especially problematic because proving that a juror’s testimony has been tainted by media coverage is extremely difficult.

Media Overreach

How do we know when media coverage has gone too far? In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sheppard v. Maxwell that the defendant received an unfair trial because media coverage was so broad that it diverted the trial away from its primary purpose of adjudicating the criminal case in an objective and solemn courtroom setting. In that case, the court found that prosecutors were actually collaborating with the media to inflame the jurors against the defendant.

This is a very high bar to meet, as the courts need to be careful not to impede on the public’s First Amendment freedom of the press. As such, proving that media coverage is so widespread as to make it impossible for a jury to be impartial will be very difficult.

Public Outrage

Many defendants in high-profile criminal trials experience unfair public shame and humiliation before the trial even begins. The news has a bad habit of convicting people before a trial. Depending on how long the trial takes, defendants might endure significant shame in their community without even being convicted.

Defendants might feel pressure to plead guilty just to avoid further humiliation, even if they are not guilty. Even when defendants are found not guilty, the media often cannot or will not undo the damage they did to the defendant’s reputation.

How to Prevent the Media From Influencing a Criminal Trial in Utah

Stay off social media! Most people have at least one social media profile. If you do, adjust your privacy settings so nobody other than an approved list of friends or followers can access your profile. After that, abstain from posting anything. If reporters somehow get access to your profile, they might use the information in news stories about your trial.

Contact the people in your inner circle and instruct them to avoid talking to people from the media. Depending on the public interest in the trial, reporters, journalists, and media outlets might contact your loved ones to discuss the case.

Do not discuss the case with anyone but your lawyer. Even if you trust a friend or family member with sensitive information, avoid telling them. You never know how that information might come out later.

Do not speak to the media! People sometimes get so frustrated about how they are being portrayed in the news that they feel compelled to set the record straight or believe that a public reckoning might convince the prosecution that they’ve already been punished enough and do not need to be tried, too. This rarely goes over well. Giving any information to the media, even if you believe it will help you, will likely only add fuel to the fire.

What to Do if the Media Negatively Impacts the Outcome of a Criminal Trial in Utah

In cases where jurors or witnesses have been compromised because of pervasive media coverage, your lawyer can move for a mistrial. While this is not ideal – we would have to start your case over from the beginning with a new jury – but it might help you avoid an unfair verdict from a tainted jury.

On top of that, the next jury may be sequestered, preventing them from being influenced by the media, but this tends to be rare. According to Utah Code § 77-17-9(1), a judge may order the jury to be sequesters at almost any time before the case is handed over to the jury for deliberations. Alternatively, we might persuade the prosecutor to reduce the charges or even drop them completely if they really botched the first trial.

We might instead be proactive and move for a change of venue. This would mean your trial is heard in a courtroom in a different jurisdiction where media coverage might not reach. This might be a good solution if media coverage is mostly local. This might be less helpful in cases where national news outlets pick up a criminal trial. Remember, changing venue in a criminal trial is not easy, and we must show there is a pretty extreme reason for the need for a new venue.

If there is no way to get an impartial jury because of rampant media coverage, we can ask for a bench trial where the judge acts as the trier of fact. Judges are better at remaining impartial in the face of things like media coverage.

Connect with Our Utah Criminal Defense Attorneys to Get Help

Call Overson Law, PLLC at (801) 758-2287 to get a private review of your case for no charge from our South Jordan criminal defense lawyers.