Stop! In the Name of Good Publicity!

Matthew McConaughey as “Danny Buck Davidson” in Bernie.

One of my all-time favorite films is Bernie. The film, released in 2011, tells the real story of a 1999 murder trial in Carthage, Texas. Bernie Tiede, the film’s titular character, murders an elderly woman to whom he was very close in a fit of rage following years of emotional mistreatment from her. The woman’s body was not discovered for nine months following the murder because Tiede buries her in the deep freezer in the garage – right underneath the ice, meat and veggies. According to the film, the murder was the talk of the town – and received lots of media coverage. This week’s reading in Garrett Epps’ Freedom of the Press, which details the Supreme Court case of the Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, reminded me of the film. Here, the right to a free press and fair trial butt heads – a town of 850 people will be make up, in part, a jury that decides whether or not an alleged multiple-murderer will be imprisoned; but as they regularly receive news on the details of the case, the opinions they form outside of the court may sway their decision. Is this man’s sixth amendment right to “trial by an impartial jury” being infringed upon by the press? The answer is no. Chief Justice Burger explains that the concern that “pre-trial publicity could impinge on the defendant’s right to a fair trial” does not mean that the press must be silenced. Justices Stewart, Brennan, and Marshall concur – “to resort to prior restraints on the freedom of the press is [a] constitutionally impermissible method” for upholding the sixth amendment right. People would receive information on the case one way or another – especially in a town of 850 people. It’s better than they get accurate information. And as for the trial? Well, if we revisit Bernie, there’s a way to gain an impartial jury without having to silence the press or the general population – by the end of the film, the prosecutor succeeds in getting a change of venue – basically, the trial is moved to another town so that an impartial jury can be present. Changes of venue often happen in cases with widespread publicity – essentially, it’s not the media’s job to keep people impartial. It’s the court’s job to find impartial people!

One thought on “Stop! In the Name of Good Publicity!

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  1. I’m so glad you referenced this Jack Black film (and introduced me to it three years ago) because I also thought of this example in this week’s reading. In all seriousness, I like what you say about it being the court’s job to find an impartial jury, because in the end, it is the job of the media to report and inform, regardless of how it effects the case.

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