Both the Federal Constitution and the state constitution provide every person with several rights when it comes to the kind of trial that he or she deserves: there is a right to a public trial1, a right to a fair trial2 and a right to a trial by an impartial jury3.
Concurrently, the public and the press have a First Amendment right of access to courts and to trials4. These rights combine to form a “presumption of openness”5 and access to courts and judicial documents.
The core value of this right to a public trial is:
Public monitoring of the judicial process through open court proceedings and records enhances confidence in the judicial system by ensuring that justice is administered equitably and in accordance with established procedures.
“[T]he bright light cast upon the judicial process by public observation diminishes the possibilities for injustice, incompetence, perjury and fraud. Furthermore, the very openness of the process should provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system and a better perception of its fairness.”
An impartial jury is one which comes into a trial without any preconceived notions and can put aside whatever biases they may have formed and decide the case based on the evidence presented to it. Just because jurors have been exposed to news coverage doesn’t mean that the defendant is deprived of due process6. Jurors are not required to be “totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved” and prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality does not require ignorance7.
Sometimes, however, these core rights are at loggerheads. This is when the public’s right of access and the media’s right to report on court proceedings creates an atmosphere of publicity in which it is impossible to find and seat impartial jurors. This happens in high profile cases where there is such extensive media coverage with inflammatory information and facts that create irreversible biases among potential jurors. In a case like that, the defendant need not prove that each potential juror is actually biased against him, but whether the pretrial publicity constitutes an “extreme circumstance where there has been inherently prejudicial publicity such as to make the possibility of prejudice highly likely or almost unavoidable.”8 Since this would be done pretrial, most defendants would seek to have the trial moved to another location where there isn’t such publicity, or wait a long time for the prejudice to abate.
This Constitutional lesson is currently being enacted for the American public in Boston, where Dzokhar Tsarnaev is being tried in a capital case for the Boston Marathon bombings.
That there is immense pretrial publicity in this case is undeniable. The Boston bombing was the top MA story of 2014. This has already prompted Tsarnaev’s lawyers to file three motions for change of venue. [Update]
The first two were rejected All three have now been rejected [PDF] as was a subsequent Writ of Mandamus filed in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals [pdf] which that court denied [PDF].9 This is because courts like to think that jury selection can weed out the partial jurors and uncover those hidden gems who can profess to be impartial. In fact, it’s one of the minimization mechanisms required as an alternative to a change of venue.10
It is with that in mind that it seems the district judge and the court of appeals denied Tsarnaev’s first attempts at changing venue.
Then came jury selection, which has been an unmitigated disaster. According to his third Motion for Change of Venue [PDF] and his Second Writ of Mandamus [PDF], juror questionnaires and jury selection have uncovered irreparable biases:
[A]n extraordinary 85 percent of the prospective jurors either believe Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, or have some self-identified “connection” to the case, or both.
Fully 68 percent of prospective jurors already believe that Mr. Tsarnaev is guilty, before hearing a single witness or examining a shred of evidence at trial.
Even more striking, 69 percent of prospective jurors have a self identified connection or expressed allegiance to the people, places, and/or events at issue in the case. Stronger support for a finding of presumed prejudice in Boston is difficult to imagine, and the existing record precludes a fair trial in Boston.
The news media has done an equally impressive job of documenting the utter futility of seeking impartial jurors and the investigations of potential jurors’ social media accounts have uncovered biases that may have otherwise remained hidden. In fact, a new poll published today in the Boston Globe reveals that almost 90% of people think he is guilty or probably guilty.
11 days of selection have passed, 142 jurors have been questioned and we still don’t know how many, if any, have been selected11.
The First Circuit ordered the Government to respond to Tsarnaev’s Writ today. Whether it rules today and in what direction remains to be seen, but all of this does raise the question:
What do we really mean by a fair trial? Given the juror responses and the polls conducted, it seems obvious that everyone thinks Tsarnaev is guilty. Then why are we persisting with this charade in Boston? Our rules of law require that a decision be made only on the basis of the evidence presented in court. Yet if this trial is permitted to remain in Boston it will become clear that what we mean by “Fair Trial” is merely an “appearance of a fair trial” without regard to reality. Fair trial would mean “a fair trial to the extent that we can provide one under the circumstances”. The right decision here would be to move the trial but can we get past the legalese and make that difficult decision?12 Or is it going to be “good enough” for us to say that “well, we know he’s really, really guilty, so seriously, c’mon guys, the Constitution doesn’t count here”?