The Good Sheppard

I was really honored to be part of a panel discussion last week at the annual meeting of the Ohio Judicial Conference. My panel, headed up by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Russo, discussed the issue of media access to court proceedings and the effect of pretrial publicity on high profile trials. Judge Russo presided over the Ariel Castro trial, so he has a little experience. 

In the course of the discussion, we talked about the U.S. Supreme Court case of Sheppard v. Maxwell, still the leading case on pretrial publicity and its potential effect on a defendant’s fair trial rights. Sheppard was a doctor in Bay Village, Ohio, accused in 1954 of killing his wife. He claimed an intruder broke into the house and did the deed. Sound familiar? It was the inspiration for the TV program “The Fugitive.” The series led to the 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommie Lee Jones. And that led to one of my favorite bits of dialogue ever:

Sheppard’s trial caused a media frenzy. This video  and this one  give a feel. One aspect we discussed was the sheer physical intrusion in the courtroom occasioned by the size of the typical 1954 era camera. Suffice to say, they were bigger back in the day. Just given the advance of technology, not to mention the reduction in the number of media outlets, it’s hard to imagine a repeat of a courtroom so jammed with reporters that the media is permitted to sit literally next to the counsel tables.  

I suppose sensationalist coverage will be with us, at least so long as Nancy Grace is on the air.  But before we conclude today’s media is irresponsible, it may be worth looking at the case that inspired the one armed man!