Updated: Nov 18, 2020
High profile cases often attract a significant amount of media attention, which makes the process of jury selection insanely difficult. Pretrial publicity (PTP) is problematic because jurors are not supposed to know information about a case going into it – if they have opinions and biases before trial, they should be excluded from the jury. For example, Casey Anthony was accused of killing her two year old daughter, Caylee. The media constantly was talking about the case, which resulted in 90% of the potential jury population having to be eliminated due to pre-formed biases. You can probably think of several other major examples, such as OJ Simpson and the police officers who were accused of killing George Floyd.
Sometimes these cases result in change of venue challenges with the intent of finding a different location where the jurors will be fair. However, in a world of global media, this is becoming more difficult. Several questions arise about the reliability of jury verdicts in high profile cases. Does deliberation eliminate any biases? Can a jury excluding jurors who are exposed to media actually be representative? Should juries make these decisions in highly publicized cases?
In Your Bias Is Rubbing Off on Me: The Impact of Pretrial Publicity and Jury Type on Guilt Decisions, Trial Evidence Interpretation, and Impression Formation, Ruva and Coy (2020) explore the effects of PTP and jury type on mock jurors’ verdicts, impressions, and perceptions of evidence. The researchers exposed jurors to PTP (anti-prosecution, anti-defense, or none) a week before having them watch and deliberate on a case about a woman who has been accused of killing her child. Their results showed that PTP biased jurors and, during deliberation, the bias transferred to jurors who had not been exposed to PTP. Surprisingly, compared to those who didn't see PTP, people exposed to anti-prosecution PTP were more lenient; people exposed to anti-defense PTP were not different.
This study shows that deliberation does not eliminate biases, and actually spreads bias to jurors who were not exposed to PTP. However, most of the bias in this study came from anti-prosecution PTP, which raises more concerns that there might be biases against defendants even without PTP (challenging the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”). Courts need to take more steps to eliminate incoming juror biases, and hopefully more psycholegal research will help identify methods of reducing the harmful impact of PTP.