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Does the Media Attention On Trials Taint Juries?

Aired July 11, 2003 - 20:38   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, a little smoggy here in Los Angeles, but it has been awfully nice the last couple of days I must admit.
I want to tell you about some movement in the D.C. Sniper case. It is more likely that D.C. area sniper suspect, John Allen Muhammad's trial will, in fact, be moved. Prosecutors for the first time say they do not oppose a change of venue. A judge is going to rule later on.

Now the trial for Muhammad's alleged accomplice, as you all know, already has been moved out of the D.C. Area in hopes of finding an impartial jury.

Well in this age of 24 hour news cycles and saturation coverage is anyone impartial anymore? And are authorities slyly spiking the court of public opinion by using terms like person of interest instead of suspect. We heard this so much, even in the last week or two. It happened in the cases of missing Baylor basketball player roommate Carlton Dotson, also Vincent Brothers, the Bakersfield man whose family was killed, or, as in the Kobe Bryant's story this week, naming names and giving details, then telling us they're only considering charges.

Want to consider all this with Court TV anchor Lisa Bloom who joins us from New York. And in Philadelphia, CNN contributor and trial attorney Michael Smerconish. Appreciate both of you joining us.

Michael let's start off with you. I mean, what happened to innocent until proven guilty in the court of law, not court of public opinion or according to some local official?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, TRIAL ATTORNEY: Well, I think that still holds, Anderson, until the television lights get turned on. You know, whether you're in a tap room or a television studio, you watch these cases unfold, human instinct, human emotion is to form an opinion.

What we have seen recently, though, is with all of this intense coverage on so many different cases, maybe it has gone a bit too far and we're starting to run the risk of poisoning jurors. I look at that Peterson case, in particular, where there has been a free for all in the media despite a gag order and I say, whoever is going to serve on that jury, unless they're on Mars, has heard a great deal about the case before they even start the trial.

COOPER: Yes, but, Lisa, let me direct this to you a little bit more, because Michael brings up the media. I'm not one to defend the media at all, but it is not just media, it is officials who are arresting people and trying to decide later whether or not there will be any charges filed.

LISA BLOOM, COURT TV ANCHOR: Well look, they're using the tools available to them, Anderson, and the media is an enormously powerful tool to get witnesses to come forward and both sides use it for that purpose to get information out there to help law enforcement solve crimes.

Person of interest is a very odd phrase. Apparently the entire Baylor basketball team are persons of interest out there in Waco, Texas. But, look, law enforcement has to call them something. They're not exactly witnesses, they're not exactly suspects. They're people that law enforcement wants to talk to and they're using the media to try to solve crimes. I don't have a problem with that.

COOPER: Yes, but Lisa, Lisa in the Baylor case, the police came forward and said the basketball team are suspects. And then a couple of days later they came back and said, oops, You know what, we shouldn't have said the word suspects and now Carlton Dotson, I don't know really know what his status is, but no charges have been filed. Calling someone -- and this latest case, Vincent Brothers this man returning to California his family is dead. Don't know whether or not he was involved, but police say he's a likely suspect. What does that mean, likely?

BLOOM: Well of course he's a likely suspect. It's his wife, three children and mother-in-law who were found murdered. Of course he's going to be the most likely suspect, that only makes sense. But I'm not worried about tainting jury pools. Jurors are just as skeptical as the press, I hate to break it to you, as they are of lawyers. Once they get in the jury room, all the studies show they're very methodical, they're very contentious and they rule based on the evidence.

COOPER: Michael, is the fear of tainting jury pools or is it, you know, concern about, maybe, destroying some people's lives?

SMERCONISH: I think the prosecutors are people, too. And they want to win, Anderson. When they bring the case they want to win that case. I cannot help but think that but for the media attention on the Vincent Brothers situation, that charge would have stuck and that he would not have walked out of the room where they were interrogating him down south within the last couple of days.

I think that the minute that the media focuses on a case, these prosecutors say, boy, I hope I have my ducks in a row. Look what is going on with Kobe, where on one hand you have the sheriff who made the arrest and now the D.A. is taking his time and bringing those charges. I think if it were someone other than Kobe, the charges would have been brought by now.

BLOOM: But, you know, it took a couple of days for the press to even become aware that Kobe had been arrested. And I give Kobe credit for this, he has not had PR people out there attacking the victim as for example Robert Blake's attorney did right after his wife died. Kobe has kept a low profile. He's been very quiet. He's probably waiting with his attorneys working behind the scenes to see if charges will be filed.

SMELCONISH: And Lisa brings up a great example with this Robert Blake case. I mean, look what happened, Anderson, on Thursday, where a woman goes to court and essentially says I'm in fear for my life. Marlon Brando's son may have played a role in connection with the death of Bonny Lee Bakley and I don't want to testify at a trial.

I sat back and I watched those events unfold and I came to the conclusion that that whole hearing was for the benefit of the public and that was an attempt to try and curry favor with perspective jurors.

COOPER: Interesting. Alright, We're going to have to leave it there. Michael Smerconish, Lisa Bloom, appreciate you joining us. Good talking to you as always.


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