CORVALLIS, Ore. - Despite the growing news media fascination with murder and other high-profile trials, a new study has found that pre-trial publicity - and ongoing trial coverage - has little or no influence on the final verdict.
Though pre-trial coverage usually casts the defendant in a negative light, the authors say, their studies of more than 1,100 felony murder and bank robbery trials found no statistical difference between guilty verdicts in trials that were heavily publicized and trials that received virtually no media attention.
Researchers William E. Loges, of Oregon State University, and Jon Bruschke, California State University at Fullerton, outline their argument in a new book called "Free Press vs. Fair Trials: Examining Publicity's Role in Trial Outcomes." It was published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
"Since the Supreme Court's ruling in the Sam Sheppard case in the 1960s, many people have assumed that the defendant can't get a fair trial if there has been a lot of pre-trial publicity," Loges said. "And certainly, the vast majority of pretrial publicity is negative to the defense. But the courts have developed ways of dealing with the publicity factor that makes it a non-issue, as long as attorneys and judges avail themselves of those remedies.
"If there is one factor where publicity may have an influence it is in sentencing," Loges added. "In general, the more publicity a trial gets, the stiffer the sentence. This may be due to the nature of the crime. Other studies have shown that judges don't want to be viewed as being soft on crime, so there is an incentive for stricter sentencing."
Loges is an assistant professor of new media communications and sociology at OSU; Bruschke is an associate professor of speech communication and co-director of the debate team at CSU-Fullerton. They trace their interest in the role of publicity on trials back to the O.J. Simpson case, when many blamed the media for the verdict.
While Simpson was found not guilty, a majority of defendants in murder cases are convicted. And existing research seemed to validate the idea that pre-trial publicity influences outcomes, Loges said.
"Then we looked at most of the research and found it lacking," he said. "Many of the studies involved college students in a class playing the role of a jury. They were not realistic studies; the evidence was often extremely prejudicial, and often these mock juries had no opportunity to deliberate. It was all too artificial. Jon and I believed that the best arguments about media influence start from observations of real trials."
The researchers studied more than 300 felony murder cases during a three-year period and examined the amount of news media coverage of those trials.
Felony murder cases they studied included crimes by drug kingpins, the killing of law enforcement officers or FBI agents, and killings that took place during kidnappings or bank robberies.
In about half of the cases, the researchers found, the trials received no publicity, and in those cases the defendant was found guilty 79 percent of the time. Among the other half of the cases, the trial coverage ranged from modest to intense. When the coverage was most intense, the defendants were found guilty 82 percent of the time. The difference between the odds of being found guilty in the no-publicity and high-publicity trials is not statistically significant, the researchers say.
In trials that received one to five stories in newspapers, the defendant was found guilty 92 percent of the time. When there were six to 10 stories, the guilty verdict rate dropped to 68 percent. "We believe that the quality of evidence is the most important factor," Loges said. "We didn't evaluate the evidence in these 300 (murder) cases because that was too expensive. We looked at enough cases, however, that there should have been a disparity in guilty verdicts if pre-trial publicity really did have an impact. And if there was a direct correlation between media coverage and verdict, you should see a linear result. The more publicity cases get, the more guilty verdicts should be rendered. That simply didn't happen."
A subsequent study of more than 800 murder and bank robbery cases in Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles also failed to show a relationship between the amount of coverage the crimes received and the likelihood of a guilty verdict.
Loges said cases that received low levels of attention likely follow a script: There is a news story on the crime, and another about the arrest. Ongoing coverage occurs when there is controversy, and that controversy often goes to the quality of the evidence, which already would be argued by both sides.
"The courts have developed remedies for dealing with the potential influence of publicity, including voir dire, admonitions from the judge, continuances, sequestration, change of venue and juror replacement," Loges said. "The biggest problem for the defendant is that you're the defendant. The prosecution has more resources than you do, and you have to be able to afford a good defense."
Ironically, Loges said, any influence news media coverage may have on major trials may not affect juries so much as it might have an impact on judges, prosecutors and even defense attorneys. For judges, the impact may come in sentencing. For counsel trying the case, the media may find holes in either side's argument, or include information not presented as evidence in court - such as prior convictions for a relevant crime by the defendant. The authors note in their book that defense attorneys may be motivated to work harder by excessive publicity, since it calls attention to their efforts and may attract future clients. But in the end, publicity alone isn't enough to affect the verdict in most cases.
Loges said if the O.J. Simpson trial did one thing, it was change the way the news media approach a major trial.
"In the case of celebrities - whether it is the Robert Blake murder trial or Winona Ryder's shoplifting trial - you get a breathless nature of coverage," Loges said. "The media feel they can get away with more now than before, and the competition is frenzied. The distinction between legitimate news coverage and tabloid journalism got blurred during the O.J. trial because outlets like The National Enquirer were breaking stories. The New York Times, trying to double-check sources and facts, found itself getting burned.
"So today it's hard to know the source of information, or the motivation of those presenting it," he added. "News doesn't fit into a 24-hour cycle anymore. Now the story evolves before your eyes and so-called 'facts' are constantly changing.
"The burden on the viewer to understand that change has increased dramatically," Loges said. "But as viewers we're not prepared for that. What's most important to the justice system is that we act as responsible jurors - and our study shows that we are capable of that - even if our media don't provide unbiased coverage of the crimes about which we're asked to deliberate."