By: Jodi Guglielmi
Justin Bieber arrested for drunken driving. Lindsey Lohan sent to jail for drug possession. Casey Anthony found “Not Guilty” of murdering her daughter.
These are the headlines that at some point you could read in nearly every newspaper in the country.
While some cases make national news, local news outlets also pick up cases that they think will interest the public.
“The media decides which cases become ‘high profile’, not the court,” said Assistant District Attorney Howard Nuemann.
Most “high profile” cases usually involve a celebrity (local or national), government official, or a vicious crime.
“In North Carolina, most of the cases that the media picks up are murder trails,” says Nuemann.
Under the spotlight
As soon as people read about the case in the newspaper, or hear about it on television, they instantly begin following the case from arrest all the way until the verdict.
While most people follow the case, they don’t realize the changes that the court undergoes to accommodate the media attention it is receiving.
“We are under a microscope,” said Attorney Paul Bollinger. “Even though our job titles and duties stay the same, you can’t help but notice that everyone is watching your every move.”
According to former St. Louis Prosecutor Scott Ingram, in cases that have been given media attention, there is more pressure to take the case to trial. Making plea-bargains behind the scenes becomes more difficult.
“Once you are in the courtroom all of the normal rules apply, but the way you prepare for the case changes,” explains Ingram. “You have to make sure you have a solid plan going in. If you change your course of action mid trial, people will notice and think you aren’t prepared.”
From coming up with an airtight strategy, to choosing the right prosecutor for the case, every detail matters when the spotlight is shining down on the courtroom.
Choosing the players
While judges are assigned to court cases by a lottery system, deciding who is involved in cases receiving a lot of media attention can be a rather tedious process.
In most counties, the elected District Attorney assigns prosecutors to each case based on the direction in which they want to take the case. This differs from typical cases. When a case is not considered “high profile” prosecutors are usually randomly assigned.
If a certain prosecutor has handled cases with similar crimes, they will probably be assigned the case. However, each prosecutor still goes through a screening process to determine if they are right for the job.
Similarly, members of the jury also go through a screening process, which can become extremely intense during “high profile cases.”
“We have to make sure that the person has no bias before the case is taken to trial,” explains Nuemann.
When the crime is vicious or the person involved is a celebrity, the court must make sure that nobody on the jury has seen news coverage of the crime committed. This could lead them to form opinions before the trial, thus skewing the verdict.
In some cases, the court decides to move the trial out of the county in which the crime was committed. This gives both the defense and the prosecutors a better chance at a fair trial.
Dealing with the media
With the risk of additional media, Attorney’s must also be careful about what information they disclose. In the state of North Carolina, there are certain laws that restrict what attorney’s can and cannot say.
“Even though we have these laws, when the media is hounding you for a statement, you have to be even more aware of what you are saying. A slip of information could lead to a mistrial,” said Bollinger.
The media does not only follow the case outside of the courtroom, they are allowed inside as well.
However, the judge has the power to place any restrictions on the media that they feel necessary. This can include anything from where the cameras are to be placed, to if cameras are allowed at all.
“In most cases, news stations will share one camera and take turns using the footage so that their presence is not disruptive,” said Nuemann. “If they do this, most judges will allow media to reserve seats in the courtroom as well. It’s all about being discreet.”
The judge has the right to alter the rules if they are distracting the jury, or proving to be disruptive to the flow of the trial.
No matter if the case is big or small, the importance of following court rules and mandates remains the same. If the media gets involved, they must work with the court, not the other way around.
“No one is given special treatment,” said Ingram. “Even with a celebrity like Justin Bieber, if the judge doesn’t want cameras or audio devices in the courtroom, the media is out of luck.”
Related Information and Facts
- According to FBI data, in 2012 there were approximately 1,214,462 violent crimes committed.
- States including California, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and more provide summaries of high profile or cases that cause public controversy on their courthouse website.
- While not all high profile cases involve the FBI, they too have a database of their most “famous cases and criminals” including Bonnie and Clyde all the way to the 9/11 terrorist investigation.
- Celebrities are no strangers to the law. In fact, notable names such as Mark Wahlberg, Tim Allen, Martha Stewart, T.I., Robert Downey Jr. and many more have done time in federal prison.
- According to murder statistics, the average number of murders has shown a steady decline in the past decade, peaking in the 1980’s.