In era of media sensationalism, is a fair trial possible?

On the day that marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arraigned in federal court, many mass transit commuters on the Green Line train in Boston hoped the 19-year-old college student would face harsh justice.

“He deserves the death penalty,” one commuter said July 10, while another thought a life sentence would be the best punishment for Tsarnaev, who is alleged to have conspired with his late older brother to set off pressure-cooker bombs at the April 15 Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds more. The brothers also reportedly shot and killed an MIT police officer before engaging police in a firefight.

Justice, not vengeance

The raw emotions in Boston were understandable, especially people’s hopes for justice on behalf of the victims. However, an apparent desire for vengeance that was also voiced by many in the weeks after the bombing runs counter to the Christian ideals of forgiveness and mercy, which are not to be understood, though, as being opposed to justice.

“A compassionate community and a loving God seek accountability and correction but not suffering for its own sake. Punishment must have a constructive and redemptive purpose,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in its 2000 document “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, the bishops noted, taught that punishment of wrongdoers is justified in the Catholic tradition, but never for its own sake.

Also, the intense and sometimes sensational media coverage of Tsarnaev’s case — as well as other recent high-profile court proceedings — inundate citizens with information that can make it difficult to find a jury pool that is open-minded and untainted when the case reaches trial.

“I do think (the media coverage) damages the fairness of the process not just for people in the system, but generally it creates a view in the public about the criminal justice system that is really not accurate,” Richard Garnett, a law and political science professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, told Our Sunday Visitor. “If a jury pool had their consciences shaped by endless hours of Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera, I worry they’re not going to be able to do the job we want a juror to do, which is to be, to the most extent possible, objective and dispassionate, and to wait to let the evidence come in before forming an opinion, and to test it carefully before coming to a judgment.”

Right to due process

Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church do not teach how a modern criminal justice legal system should be organized. Neither the Old nor New Testaments shed light on the criteria police should use to apply for search warrants or what constitutes probable cause to arrest someone suspected of murder or armed robbery.

But biblical and Church teachings on the dignity of the human person and justice do show that people who commit crimes need to be held accountable for their actions in a manner that recognizes that they are still children of God. The right to due process — where people charged with crimes can defend themselves in a fair, transparent process — is a reflection of the attempt to treat both victims and offenders with dignity.

“There is in the Catholic intellectual tradition a firm foundation in the idea that due process of law is essential to the administration of justice,” Garnett said, adding that America’s criminal justice system is “a pretty sound one.”

“I think our system is supposed to treat people well,” he said. “You have the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel. There is also value in getting at the right answer.”

Many of the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights can be traced to English common law, which developed over time with many religious origins and influences, said Eugene Milhizer, president and dean of Ave Maria School of Law.

“Those developments were aimed at achieving results that were just and consistent with the truth, but also to do it by way of a process that would allow society to have confidence in the process of how those results were achieved,” he said. 

A sound criminal justice system, in the Catholic intellectual tradition, is based on laws that are reasonable and public. Arbitrary laws and secret trials violate justice and undermine the common good.

“Keeping with the idea of the high esteem that is held for the truth, we want judgments and determinations to be based on the truth,” Milhizer said. “It should not be a matter of the outcome and getting there anyway possible.”

Effects of scrutiny

However, as the legal scholars interviewed for this story noted, the criminal justice system does have many built-in weaknesses that are difficult to address, such as the reality that low-income people charged with crimes are often represented by public defenders, while the wealthy can afford the best attorneys to defend them.

Also, the scrutiny that high-profile cases generate often affect how the defendants are treated in court. A politically savvy district attorney will ask for higher bail in those cases to portray a tough-on-crime persona, and many judges will grant those requests.

“Judges are very cognizant of what newspapers are going to say, so those [with] high publicity are not going to get bail,” said Robert Bloom, a professor at Boston College Law School.

One recent case where media attention apparently exerted influence was in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was acquitted July 14 of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Citing Florida’s “stand your ground law,” Zimmerman argued he shot Martin in self-defense in February 2012. The Sanford, Fla., Police Department, which originally investigated the case, did not file charges against Zimmerman, but he was subsequently indicted after a national outcry.

“The Zimmerman case would not have been brought to trial without the publicity,” Bloom said. “The verdict was not surprising given the status of the evidence and the self-defense law in Florida.”

Despite the heavy media coverage, the jury apparently tried to reach a fair verdict based on the evidence, though many disagreed with their conclusion.

“Oftentimes, people are making judgments on a case that is not from the jurors’ perspective,” Milhizer said. “Your view of the trial will be different from the jurors’ view of the trial. I don’t always agree with the jury’s verdict, but by and large, I think the jurors try to do the right thing.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.