The trial of Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend and her doctors in Los Angeles hasn’t yet begun and already it has raised interesting questions about the way courts try to manage high profile trials and the media.
Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry has announced he will root out stealth jurors who seek personal gain from jury service on this celebrity trial; he will cross check jurors for any criminal behavior they omit during voir dire, and he will allow attorneys questioning of prospective juror’s personal drug history, legal and illicit, even asking what prescription medicines they take. That seems to be a trifecta for a very ambitious inquiry into juror’s behaviors, their present and past and poses the question, who is protecting the juror’s rights?
This is a trial which has already attracted considerable media interest. But long after the trial has concluded, what happens to the information acquired by the court about both the legal use of medications or of drug abuse that’s put on the public record in terms of juror’s rights, their long-term ability to buy health insurance among other privacy concerns. To his credit Judge Perry has said he will release jurors who don’t want to be questioned about their personal histories before the court, but even that raises questions of doubt, to wit: Why not? What are they hiding? This is a slippery slope where what is said, or not said, could become grounds for future decisions, some perhaps even individually harmful?
And there are the media concerns.
Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch filed this about jury qualification on Thursday, “Perry plans to keep the names of jurors secret from lawyers, who complained that would make it impossible to track whether they were blogging or reporting on the trial via social networking websites. The judge agreed to ask prospects if they have blogs or social media accounts. He also intends to ask his staff to check periodically to make sure jurors are not blogging about the case.”
It is evidence of a growing sophistication of courts about what jurors are doing both live and at home, sending tweets, doing extra research, and communicating in forums. It also sends a certain chill in that judges traditionally admonish jurors not to discuss the case, but this could be a first where the court has announced if it will take an aggressive, even proactive approach scanning for what it would define as inappropriate or extra curricular comment.
Perhaps most amusing was the judge’s awareness of the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com. In an exchange with Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose Judge Perry refused to grant a gag order while admonishing her that he was unsealing many of her motions. In an exchange reported by Deutsch, the Judge suggests he has already reached some conclusions, dare I say judgments about the caliber of media reportage and coverage, “I don’t think you should file under seal just because you don’t want the media to see it,” Perry said.
The prosecutor protested, “Everything I file ends up on TMZ,” Rose said.
“Who cares?” said the judge.
“Our jury pool is out there,” said the prosecutor.
“Do we even want people who watch TMZ on the jury?” asked the judge.
“We’re going to get them,” Rose said.
“I hope not,” said the judge.”
His judicious assessment of the quality and effect of tabloid television and its often salacious approach to celebrity coverage is justifiably troubling to courts. The judge has decided to exclude cameras in court because, according to the Deutsch report, “he believes they are a negative influence and help create a “carnival atmosphere. “The problem with celebrity trials is it has a tendency to bring out kooks, frankly,” the judge said.” As if the presence of TMZ and the scores of global media encamped at his court-house door are not already sufficient to bring on the entertainment.
It doesn’t set a precedent; too many trials from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson have been closed to cameras when, after the fact, attorneys in both cases revealed they would have preferred cameras to assure better and more accurate reporting rather than what transpired when cameras were excluded.
While the temptation to request a bag of popcorn and watch the passing parade is almost irresistable, the questions raised both by limiting the media and unlimited questioning of the jury is troubling with long-lasting implications.
Except for Deutsch, as usual, we’re not hearing much about these issues in the media. That raises the question, what has happened to the in-depth view, the coverage of the process of a case and not just its headlines and the scurrilous descriptions of the scoundrels in the case?
Ms. Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007; The defendants Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, Dr. Sanjeep Kapoor, and Smith’s former lawyer-boyfriend Howard K. Stern are charged only with conspiracy to provide drugs and not charged with causing her death.
Disclaimer – I was the pool producer for both the People of the State of California against Scott Peterson and against Michael Jackson. I am also a friend of Ms. Deutsch.
Make comments and engage in a dialogue. Silence is ominous and yields nothing toward improving the media.