Student Media Watchdog Association

Nancy Grace: Guilty until proven guilty

In Editorial on October 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

By Katherine Bies

Nancy Grace is the fiery host of her self-titled television show “Nancy Grace”, “a justice themed/interview/debate show, designed for those interested in the breaking crime news of the day”, which airs on Headline News (HLN), a CNN spinoff network, according to the CNN webpage.  In her recent coverage of the Casey Anthony trial, Grace condemned the “tot mom” as a murderer before the trial even began.  While she was championed by some viewers as a spokeswoman of justice, others, including the Anthony defense team, worried that she was denying the defendant of her basic constitutional right to a fair trial.

Grace’s show brings a new form of criminal news coverage to the American media. While objectivity and balance was once seen as an essential part of news reporting, Grace has clearly taken sides. In her coverage, Grace divides the legal world into two groups: good people, such as police officers and prosecutors, and bad people, such as defendants and their lawyers. She “appears to have never met someone arrested who she believed should not be charged, nor anyone charged who should not be convicted”, according to Tim Rutten of the LA Times.  During the Casey Anthony case, her nightly segment became a platform to campaign for Anthony’s conviction. Even after the case ended, she continued to denounce the defense lawyers and jurors and proclaim Anthony’s guilt.

With Conrad Murray’s trial underway and Grace continuing her trend of premature convictions, Murray’s defense team also expressed concern that jurors may be swayed by Grace’s remarks, thus denying Murray of a fair trial.  Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s doctor, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in relation to his death. Prior to the trial, the defense team requested the judge to sequester the jurors citing a fear that Murray’s 6th Amendment rights were being jeopardized not by a media frenzy, but by one media personality: Nancy Grace. The judge denied the motion to sequester the jurors because he didn’t want them to feel like “inmates,” but still warned the jurors to avoid exposure to media coverage.

The right to a fair trial is protected by the 6th amendment of the Constitution. It states that “accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” Although the idea that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is not specifically stated in this amendment or the Constitution, it is a concept inherited from English jurisprudence and is embodied in this right to a trial by an impartial jury.

As an intern at the Washtenaw County Courthouse, I have sat through numerous jury selections. It is a very time consuming process as the prosecution, the defense, and the judge try to weed out those jurors with opinions, knowledge, and experiences that might decrease their ability to remain impartial in the case. At the beginning of the jury selection process, the judge reads the charges of the defendant, stressing that the charges do not imply guilt and that innocence must be presumed. The judge then asks each juror if they are unable presume the defendant as innocent until proven guilty. If a juror is unable, he or she is dismissed. The utmost precaution is taken to make sure that the defendant will receive a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Fortunately for defendants, Grace’s behavior has made it unlikely that she would ever be selected a juror for a trial. However, even if Grace’s voice isn’t serving as a convicting vote on a jury, it is still being broadcasted nightly to Americans, possibly influencing their opinions on a defendant’s guilt. While it is possible to limit Grace’s influence over jurors by sequestering them or asking them not to watch her show, as long as Grace is allowed to broadcast her opinions as “news,” she will continue to influence the American’s opinions of guilt. Last time I checked the Constitution, this job was not given to Nancy Grace, but to an impartial jury of the defendant’s peers.

Not only is Grace’s show a threat to a defendant’s basic right to a fair trial, it is also a worrisome sign of the declining standard of journalism. HLN is not an obscure cable channel, but a spinoff of the well-known cable news channel, CNN. Grace’s blog is hosted on CNN’s website. While her show is mostly opinion, it is apparent that both she and many of viewers seem to take her statements as fact.

A USA Today poll conducted after the jurors’ acquittal of Casey Anthony found that 64% of American’s believe that she definitely or probably murdered her daughter.  Even after a jury acquitted Anthony of charges, she will still continue to be considered a murderer for the rest of her life, in part because of Grace’s coverage.

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