Guilty until proven innocent

By AMEER MALIK, sophomore

In the criminal justice system, the accused are declared innocent until proven guilty. To ensure that the offenders are punished appropriately, society relies on an intricate system of courts, lawyers, judges, and juries. Such a structured network undermines bias, prevents vigilante justice, and keeps order. However, today’s society is obsessed with maintaining constant access to up-to-the-minute news and information. As soon as something with even the slightest bit of interest occurs, we demand to learn more about it. The news, blogs, websites, and other media outlets all exist to quench this thirst for information. Such a state of affairs has drastically undermined the justice system. Not only do the accused have to prove their innocence to a group of jurors, but they also have to convince the thousands of viewers watching and keeping track at home.

A high-profile case that the media has recently sensationalized is the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman during his neighborhood watch. The media portrayed Zimmerman as a racist prone to violence and wanted Zimmerman to receive the harshest sentence possible. However, no one who had been covering the story or watching it unfold was actually present at the crime; it is wrong to judge someone if not all the facts are known.

An equally controversial case revolves around the trial of Dharun Ravi, a young man who was tangentially involved in the suicide of Tyler Clementi after taping and later exposing a video of Clementi’s encounter with another man. Once again, the public perception was overwhelmingly negative. Although the public largely agreed that Ravi had committed a hate crime, Judge Glen Berman did not believe that Ravi had acted out of hate but rather out of “colossal insensitivity,” thus, he was sentenced to only 30 days in prison.

Though freedom of the press is outlined in the Bill of Rights, there is no need for court trials to be widely publicized. Stories and videos of courtroom proceedings that are hyped with sensationalism serve to entertain in the same way that true crime novels do, except these trials happen in real life. Generally, cases that are covered by media sources are the especially lurid ones, involving crimes that strike emotional chords. In such instances, the publicizing of the crime, coupled with the often prevalent bias among the general public, lend a verdict before the trial even begins.

There are two essential issues here. The first concerns the actions of the jury and the judge. Though they are both supposed to be impartial, these influential decision makers cannot completely shy away from the media’s portrayal of the case. The constant coverage by newspapers and commentaries from media personalities creates a palpable impression of the accused. The defendant could be portrayed as a victim of a misunderstanding or as, without a doubt, guilty of his crime. The prevalence of such notions and judgements makes it difficult for the defendant to have a trial by a fair, unbiased jury.

The second issue with media coverage of court cases concerns the implications of such a practice on society. Though certain individuals may genuinely be interested in the workings of the court, others simply watch to be entertained. A very serious matter can quickly turn into a new form of reality television. Even though people’s lives can be spared or ruined in the courtroom, there are those who inappropriately wish to be privy to all the proceedings. Just because our country allows a free press doesn’t mean it should be exercised in every case. Freedom comes with responsibility, and media outlets should be sensible in what they choose to cover.

Recent high-profile court cases such as those of Trayvon Martin and Dharun Ravi have made such matters relevant. Different states have different laws regarding the extent of how a court proceeding can be publicized. Though the state of New Jersey permits the use of video cameras in certain courtrooms, the Supreme Court does not. This keeps the public out and preserves the sanctity of the cases. Do we have a right to be informed on legal matters? Yes, we do, but we aren’t supposed to play the judge and create a monster out of our own prejudices. It’s hard enough to keep a small group of jurors unbiased. If court cases were only extensively covered after the verdicts had been decided, such cases would serve more as educating experiences for the public rather than entertaining ones. The accused may finally be able to receive the fair trial that they are entitled to.

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