Another celebrity trial arrives just in time for summer.
The powerful managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is charged with the attempted rape and sexual assault of a chambermaid in New York City.
Before we utter another breathless word about this case, please let us not forget that the U.S. is the world leader in affording criminal defendants the right to a fair trial — even if we do tend to get a bit carried away when the case involves a celebrity.
The list is too long to name them all. It dates back to our founders, beginning with Aaron Burr’s trial for treason (he was acquitted). Fast forward to the 20th century: actor Fatty Arbuckle for rape and manslaughter (three trials, acquitted during the third), the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial (Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of murder and sentenced to death), Michael Jackson’s two child molestation trials (one civil, in which he settled for an undisclosed amount, and one criminal, in which he was acquitted), and, of course, O.J. Simpson’s two trials for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson (the murder trial, in which he was acquitted, and the civil trial, in which he was found liable). These so-called “trials of the century” have been fueled by media sensationalism and speculation that fed the public’s thirst for juicy gossip or good old-fashioned revenge.
Never before have we seen a case like Strauss-Kahn’s, however. A man of international renown, a likely candidate for president, not of our own country – that would have been fodder enough – but of France. Instead of the predicted rise to power, he has fallen from grace, is behind bars and is charged with the most sordid of crimes. Strauss-Kahn is now subject to a system of justice that is foreign to him, but one that affords criminal defendants a trial that is speedy, public and fair.
Yet, on the first day of this whole affair, we in the U.S. were reminded by a French government spokesman to please use “extraordinary prudence” in discussing the case He is right, of course. The world will be watching, not only how we cover the case, but also how our coverage affects the trial itself. The world will be observing how our criminal justice system works when a high-profile person of international import is charged with a crime. The world will be checking whether the presumption of innocence remains intact, precisely because everything we say now in the press will influence the potential jury pool. More than anyone (with the possible exception of the jurors who will decide his fate), we in the news media must withhold judgment, refrain from speculation and strive to remain fair. That requires a healthy skepticism of the facts as presented by hotel staff, law enforcement, self-proclaimed eye- and ear-witnesses and those who profess to know the parties.
Yet there are already examples of prejudicial pretrial publicity. The fact that the victim identified Strauss-Kahn in a police lineup has been widely reported. And why not? Great juicy detail. Trouble is, potential jurors are exposed to the fact of her identification and will not likely forget it if called to serve. Yet no one has reported on the ways in which the lineup was constitutionally problematic (including the fact that the victim was shown a photo of Strauss-Kahn, in the minutes after her attack, by hotel security staff) and may not be admitted at trial. Second, Strauss-Kahn’s alleged prior bad acts toward other women, have also been widely reported, and also will likely be deemed constitutionally impermissible at trial. Still, for the last 48 hours, the potential jury pool has heard little other than stories of Strauss-Kahn’s “persistent,” “aggressive,” “predatory” behavior toward women.
And so, as always happens in high-profile celebrity cases, the First Amendment right of the public to information about the case collides with Strauss-Kahn’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. It is our job in the press to shed light on the case without compromising justice in the process. It is our job to help balance the rights of a free press against the right to a fair trial.