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Weighing justice and fanfare in Jackson trial

As jury selection begins, a frenzy of coverage prompts questions about the media and fair trials.

On most days, the Superior Court in Santa Maria, Calif., quietly handles speeding tickets, drug offenses, and murder cases.

But Monday, with the start of jury selection in the case against pop star Michael Jackson, hordes of reporters, TV crews, and radio stations will be roaming the courthouse halls, desperate for information.

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Another high-profile celebrity trial begins.

It seems the list of sensational court cases keeps growing along with the media's appetite for them. But many worry that such intense coverage is transforming a process that was designed to satisfy blind Justice, and not a gossip-hungry populace.

For lawyers and judges working under the public's gaze, it means a temptation to posture as much as to prosecute and defend. For defendants, it means a desire to countermand negative images. And for jurors, it means the nearly impossible task of putting aside months, if not years, of publicity.

"Media scrutiny has taken a major toll on the interest of justice," says Martin Pollner, a New York attorney who has represented high-profile clients such as Steven Seagal, Naomi Campbell, Diana Ross, and Denise Rich. "It has changed the entire dynamic of the process."

How these challenges have grown - and spurred responses by judges and attorneys - is a tale that began long before O.J. Simpson and his white Ford Bronco.

Mr. Pollner, like many others, points to the 1995 Simpson case as the beginning of the modern obsession with celebrity trials. From the low-speed chase across L.A. freeways to constant coverage of the trial, the case brought courtroom drama into American homes as never before. Of course, the obsession with high-profile litigation stretches back to the nation's beginnings.

In Puritan times, for instance, witch trials and executions were community events. America's first serial killer, Dr. Henry Holmes, drew intense media attention when he went on trial in 1895 for murder - as did Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who killed a teenager in 1924.

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But no case up to that point created a frenzy like the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925. It was the country's first major media event: a duel between science and religion that began when biology teacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee law. Hundreds of reporters came, and the circus atmosphere on the courthouse steps included a man in a chimp suit debating fire-and-brimstone preachers.

"Americans have always viewed the courtroom as public theater," says Dirk Gibson, a communications and journalism professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "The danger is that unrestricted pretrial publicity can literally tip the balance."

The past several years have seen plenty of criminal cases involving celebrities, including Kobe Bryant, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Winona Ryder, Martha Stewart, and Jayson Williams. "In every one of these cases, you have to balance between the public's right to know and the defendant's right to a fair trial," says Melvin Schweitzer, who heads a firm specializing in public relations for high-profile cases.

Still, the difficulties of balancing constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press against the right to a fair trial are worth it, says Roberta Brackman, a Minneapolis lawyer formerly with the NBC News legal team. "While I'm certainly not going to tell you that in the past decade there haven't been some excesses of coverage ... I think most of the coverage and most of the behavior has been appropriate," she says. "Covering a trial from inside and outside has far more benefits to society and to our judicial system than any possible disadvantages."

Experts say the media's rising role has complicated the quest for justice. For one thing, lawyers are often forced to take crash courses in media relations - partly because even if they win in court, their clients may be damaged in the court of public opinion. Some seek help from public-relations firms, set up websites to post case details, or put their clients in front of the camera before trial - a move long considered taboo.

Still, "all of this never totally offsets all of the negative commentary," says Robert Morvillo, the lawyer who defended Martha Stewart in her obstruction of justice case.

One area where the media frenzy is keenly felt is in the search for an impartial jury, he says. "As much as [jurors] want to be fair and follow the judges' instructions, it becomes virtually impossible to ... make their minds a blank."

In the Martha Stewart case, for instance, one juror called the verdict "a victory for the little guys who lose money in the market because of these kinds of transactions" - even though Ms. Stewart was not charged with insider trading itself.

The issue of jury impartiality first got a high-profile airing during the treason trial of Aaron Burr. But as other issues arose, defense lawyers clamored for media restrictions, too. In 1935, for example, coverage of the trial of the man charged with the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby marked the first time newsreel cameras were allowed in court - and prompted the American Bar Association to enact rules for press coverage of criminal trials.

But perhaps no case has been cited more for media missteps - and the lessons to be gleaned from them - than that of Samuel Sheppard, accused of killing his wife in a Cleveland suburb in 1954. The coroner held an inquest in a school gym with reporters and photographers present. The names of the jurors were leaked and printed in the local papers. And members of the press were given all the seats in the courtroom, except those reserved for Dr. Sheppard's family.

The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that the judge has a responsibility to prevent press coverage from interfering with the case.

Since then, the media has made substantial gains in responsible coverage. But the growing intersection of news and entertainment has complicated matters, says Cynthia King, director of the Center for Entertainment and Tourism: "The lines have been so blurred that our entertainment is becoming more news-like - witnessed by the rash of reality shows - and our news is becoming more entertainment-like."


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