When the media plays juror

High+publicity+trials+have+a+permanent+fixture+of+American+culture%2C+giving+the+media+a+newly+formed+responsibility+for+the+outcomes+of+cases.

Jae Jepsen

High publicity trials have a permanent fixture of American culture, giving the media a newly formed responsibility for the outcomes of cases.

Jae Jepsen, copy editor

Alex Murdaugh has been featured on almost every news network in recent months as he was tried and found guilty for the murders of his wife and son. The extreme coverage of the case magnified its every detail and infiltrated the minds of the American public.

Considering the prevalence of this case over the years, a guilty verdict was predictable. The media’s obsessive coverage over the case has raised concerns, causing many to question whether it affected juror bias in court.

The Murdaugh murders have captured the public’s attention ever since the bizarre crime was committed two years ago. Even more skepticism surrounded him after Netflix released a three-part documentary detailing the family’s history of evading the law. The more exposure the public has to Alex Murdaugh’s past, the more biased against him they become.

For many, the attention on the Murdaugh case is reminiscent of when Heisman Trophy winner OJ Simpson was charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her friend in 1995. The entire world stopped to watch televised coverage of his trial. Though Simpson was acquitted of all criminal charges, the public was largely divided over his supposed innocence, and there is widespread debate surrounding the verdict to this day.

Unlike the Simpson jury, the Murdaugh jury is likely not sequestered, against the judgment of many experts. Due to this, court officials risk the outcome of the trial being influenced by the media. There have already been concerns with the integrity of the Murdaugh jury. On the morning of March 2, a juror was removed from the case after being accused of engaging in improper conversations surrounding the trial. 

Sophomore Kailee McCaw believes that having a truly impartial jury is impossible because people naturally develop biases from the media they consume. “After viewing media about anything, you instantly create an opinion. With the way media gives information, it makes it very easy for coverage of a crime to be biased, and thus the viewer,” McCaw elaborated. 

Though jurors are supposed to remain impartial, high-publicity trials often make this impossible. This reached a breaking point in 2020, when jury instructions were updated to include avoidance of social media and remind jurors to disregard the media when making decisions. 

Economics teacher Philip George was selected to serve on a jury early this year, and he was cautioned to avoid media bias. “As a juror we had to swear each day as we left the trial to avoid media coverage of the trial or looking up any information pertaining to the trial during our juror instructions. Including looking anything up on social media about the trial, the events involved, or people related to the trial,” George explained.

One example of media bias impacting a jury was seen in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. Several jurors on the case had publicly made social media posts about the event—one posting on Facebook during jury selection, receiving comments encouraging him to “play the part” by feigning neutrality. 

In George’s experience, jury selection was extremely thorough. “It took 2 days for the attorneys to select a jury as they were clearly trying to ensure that there was a fair and balanced jury and to determine possible bias amongst the potential jurors,” George shared, and his personal experiences were evaluated as well. “During the interview process if it was determined any potential jurors knew people involved in the case or the lawyers they were automatically struck from the jury and told they could leave.”

Though Tsarnaev’s case seemed relatively straightforward and had sufficient evidence, the jury’s clear bias complicated the appeals process. The media displayed information from an unlawfully elicited confession, which couldn’t be included in court, but was accessible to jurors. Because of the jury’s misconduct and bias, Tsarnaev’s original death sentence was eventually overturned, proving how instrumental juror neutrality is in the justice system. 

As cases past have demonstrated the importance of integrity among jurors of high profile trials, many have raised suspicions about the recent verdict in the Murdaugh trial.

It took the jury only a few hours of deliberations to find Murdaugh guilty, and he was sentenced to two life terms in prison for the crime. While this finding is no shock to most people, there is still an underlying question: What would have happened without public attention on the case? If social media and news outlets hadn’t made their minds up so quickly, would the jury have needed more time to deliberate, or made a different decision entirely?

In today’s day and age, there will always be highly publicized cases such as this one. True crime aficionados will flock to certain crimes, and the court of public opinion is harsh. Intentionally or not, the media has incredible influence over juries and can be integral to deciding the verdicts that will affect people’s lives for years to come.