Supreme Court Cases

Sheppard v. Maxwell, 1966

Historical Background

The 6th Amendment clearly guarantees that "In all criminal proceedings, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…." The 1st Amendment, meanwhile, insures that "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…." In the late 18th century, at a time when information moved slowly across the countryside, the Framers may never have envisioned the possibility of a conflict between those two guarantees. However, as the technology for mass communication developed, news traveled—via wire services, then over the airwaves—with increasing speed.

The proliferation of the mass media affected the judicial system extensively and profoundly. The capacity of the media to increase dramatically the amount of publicity the legal proceedings received presented new challenges to the judicial system: A citizen's right to a fair trial came into potential conflict with the media's right to report the news. With print and broadcast reporters often speculating about the guilt or innocence of the accused before a jury was even selected, was it possible to guarantee a fair trial "by an impartial jury of the State and the district" wherein a crime was alleged to have been committed? Could a fair and impartial jury be found in a community exposed to saturation coverage of a crime by the news media? What authority did the courts have to safeguard the 6th Amendment, or limit the 1st Amendment? In Sheppard v. Maxwell, the Warren Court was asked to judge these uniquely modern questions of jurisprudence.

Circumstances of the Case

The murder of Marilyn Sheppard in her bedroom on the night of July 4, 1954, rocked the small town of Bay Village, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Almost immediately suspicion arose that Dr. Samuel Sheppard, her husband, had committed the crime. Dr. Sheppard was questioned about the murder in the presence of several hundred people and a corps of reporters and photographers at a county coroner's hearing held in the gymnasium of the local high school. His attorney was ejected from the hearing by the coroner for vehemently protesting the atmosphere of the proceedings. Based in part on the results of the hearing, the county court indicted Sheppard for the murder. He was arrested and charged on July 30. The case instantly became front-page news, and local and national media seized upon its every detail.

The trial itself was a media circus. Legions of reporters and photographers packed the courtroom, occupying three of its four rows of seats and disrupting testimony with their constant movement in and around the courtroom. Reporters sat so close to Sheppard and his attorney that they were unable to speak to each other without being overheard by the press. Officers and attorneys from both sides of the case, trafficking in gossip, rumor, and innuendo, "leaked" information to reporters. The reporters then filed their stories, including in them information that had never been introduced at the trial and was harmful to Sheppard. Meanwhile, the jury had access to these press reports, although the judge had instructed them to ignore everything except the courtroom testimony. Given the atmosphere of the trial, Sheppard's attorneys twice filed motions for a change of location, and twice the motions were denied.

Constitutional Issues

At issue was the conflict between the 6th Amendment right of an accused citizen to a "speedy and public trial by an impartial jury," and the 1st Amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press to inform the public about judicial proceedings. Had there been too much publicity before and during the trial? Should the trial judge have granted the motion for a change of location because of the extensive local publicity?

Arguments

For Sheppard: The "carnival atmosphere" of the trial made justice impossible. The trial judge was in error to deny a change of location. The press had decided independently that Sheppard was guilty, and had published numerous prejudicial stores about the case, which the jury was free to read and could not possibly have ignored. Communication between the jury and their families during the deliberation of the verdict also should have been forbidden, but it was not. In short, the media blitz had made it impossible for Sheppard to receive a fair trial by "an impartial jury." His conviction, therefore, should be overturned.

For Maxwell: The great majority of the potential jurors swore under oath that they had not been prejudiced by what they had seen or read. Moreover, because the case was almost as well known across the State of Ohio as it was in the city of Cleveland, there was no place within the State to move the trial that would be any more reasonable than Cleveland. It had been a fair trial, the jury was as fair as any Sheppard could get in Ohio, and the conviction had been arrived at by proper procedures. The people of Ohio had a right to know and a compelling interest in the proceedings as reported by the press. To "gag" the press would have violated its 1st Amendment protections.

Decision and Rationale

The Court overturned Sheppard's conviction in an 8–1 decision, noting that "every court that has considered this case, save the court that tried it, has deplored the manner in which the news media inflamed and prejudiced the public." The fact is, the Court declared, "that bedlam reigned in the courthouse during the trial, and newsmen took over practically the entire courtroom hounding most of the participants…especially Sheppard." Concluding that the massive pretrial publicity had prejudiced the chances of the accused for a fair trial before an impartial jury, the court ordered that Sheppard have another trial.

The Court then began to construct remedies to prevent a recurrence of such cases in the future. After a careful review of the authority of the judiciary to control the conduct of the cases it heard, the Court ruled that authority sufficient to protect the fairness of proceedings could be exercised by trial courts. The trial court could order the officers of the court not to discuss the details of a case with the press until the trial was over. Activities of the press in the courtroom could be regulated by a judge's orders. Strict rules for the behavior of the press were enforced in a second trial for Sheppard in 1966. When the jury delivered a verdict of not guilty, Sheppard's 13-year ordeal finally ended.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Should a trial judge allow witnesses to discuss their testimony with the press before they testify? Why or why not?
  2. Should trial judges order court officials and attorneys not to discuss the details of a case? Does such an order interfere with the public's right to know?
  3. If you were a reporter, would you object to a gag order being placed on court proceedings? Do you think television cameras should be allowed in courtrooms?