Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Portrayal of Recent National Tragedies and Their Impact on Criminal Cases

The 'Dark Knight Rises' shootings.  The shootings at the Wisconsin Sikh temple.

The events above and others like them scare people.  A lot of people.  But, perhaps, the people that are scared most by the media coverage and portrayals of these horrible events are those who are charged to defend others who have been accused of committing a violent crime.

Think about it.  Every time a horrible murder or killing or shooting happens, the first thing the local or national  media tries to find and put on camera is the odd looking neighbor who proclaims, "I never saw that coming.  He was always a quiet neighbor.  Kept to himself."

The ominous portrayal of hidden killers in our midst sells commercial advertising.  But it also has the potential of making potential jurors suspicious of anyone accused of doing bad things, regardless of the level of evidence.  In a country where you are suppose to be innocent until proven guilty, the fact that our news broadcasters are trying to paint the image that a killer lurks around every corner helps create a national mindset at odds with the one conceived by the Constitution.

The Constitution expects a jury in a criminal case to question everything the State or Federal prosecutors say or do.  They must prove their case to the highest burden in the land.  They must marshal their evidence and witnesses to show their allegations are right.  They must leave no reasonable doubt behind.  Yet, this media presentation and sensationalism of alleged crimes and tragedies lends itself to a communal distrust in our fellow man and a general want for the security the government can offer.  Thus, a belief that we should no longer question the actions of those in power builds and the mere allegation passed through the national media reigns supreme.

This is compounded by the fact that every major media outlet has their own "legal analyst" who has traded whatever legal acumen they once had to become a sensationalist talking head.  Ok, that may be a bit strong. But not for most of the major media.

If you disagree, look no further than the discussion regarding George Zimmerman and Treyvon Martin.

Set aside your opinion on the case.  Wait...lets not.  Why does anyone not involved in the direct investigation, prosecution or defense of the case have a strong opinion?  I realize that as free people we have always expressed our opinions, but at one point those were the "God what has the world come too" thoughts when a brief segment of the nightly news told us about a shooting, murder, rape etc.  Or one that was more inquisitive and less judgmental. 

Now we have local and national media talking heads telling us what their speculations and opinions are and presenting those speculations and opinions as if they were grounded in FACT.  Sadly, as most trial lawyers know, the media "lawyers" aren't privy to the evidence the defense intends to present or the spin on the evidence that the prosecution intends to offer.

And yet, night after night, this is the voice that speaks to our citizens...our potential jurors.  Cloaked as news, these opinions and speculations begin to pervade the general consciousness of our nation.

Add to this mix the fact that major media outlets are willing to spin their "facts" in whatever manner best sells their commercials.  Consider NBC's decision to 'edit' Zimmerman's 911 call to make it sound like he considered Treyvon Martin up to no good because he was black.  Instead, the full recording shows that Zimmerman was responding to a request from the 911 operator for details of the individual Zimmerman was calling about.  Was Zimmerman motivated due to racial concerns?  Did he think Martin was a threat simply because he was a young black man?  The real fact is you and I don't know.  For a media outlet to spin the idea that we should believe their edited facts for ratings?  That is deplorable.

When our "trusted neutral reporters" are now reduced to spinning criminal cases before the evidence is available all in the name of the all-holy Rating, we all should fear the impact on our presumption of innocence.

Why you say?  You who have no intention or plan to ever commit a crime.  Why should you care about our presumption of innocence?  Consider any of the following possibilities:

--You see a man and a woman having an argument and he looks like he is going to hit her.  You step in to protect her and he attacks you.  You defend yourself.  When the police come, the woman doesn't want her husband to go to jail.  So she says you started it.  The police arrest you for assault.

--You are driving home late at night and stop for gas.  A unkempt-looking man approaches you.  You tell him to leave you alone.  It looks like he is grabbing for a knife or gun as he mutters to himself.  You, being a CHL holder, remove your handgun from your glove compartment to protect yourself.  The guy sees it and leaves.  Next thing you know, the police arrive, having been called by someone who "saw" what happened.  You are arrested for Aggravated Assault with a deadly weapon by displaying a firearm.

--You meet an attractive woman at a nightclub.  She invites you back to her place. You accept.  After spending some quality time together, you get dressed to leave.  She wants you to stay.  You both argue and you head home.  The next day the police knock on your door telling you that there was a report made last night that you sexually assaulted the woman.

Each situation involves someone involved in an otherwise innocent act.  But if our fellow citizens set aside the presumption of innocence, in each case you would face the real possibility of being labeled a violent criminal. And the national media awaits to spin the story against you.

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