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Can Boston bombing suspect get a fair trial if public thinks he confessed?

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In Sheppard v. Maxwell, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that intense pretrial publicity prevented Samuel Sheppard from getting a fair trial for allegedly bludgeoning his pregnant wife to death.

The justices ruled 8 to 1 that the circus-atmosphere around the trial prejudiced jurors’ minds. The trial judge should have postponed the case or moved it to a different venue, the court ruled.

Prosecutors can also be leery about unsourced leaks. For example, Jason Blair, a disgraced former reporter for The New York Times, broke a story about the Beltway sniper, John Muhammad, claiming that on Oct. 30, 2002, Mr. Muhammad was about ready to confess to the shootings when the US Attorney forced interrogators to stop questioning him.

Prosecutors adamantly denied the story, but the so-called near-confession made people think he must be guilty.

In another article, Mr. Blair wrote that unidentified officials had decided that Lee Boyd Malvo, Mr. Muhammad’s teenage accomplice, was the triggerman. The prosecutor in the case held a press conference to deny that story as well.

"I don't think that anybody in the investigation is responsible for the leak, because so much of it was dead wrong," the prosecutor, Robert Horan, said at the news conference as reported by The New York Times in its own story about Blair’s many fabrications, including much of his reporting on the Beltway sniper case.

Mr. Shapiro was one of the defense lawyers in the Muhammad and Malvo case, and he, too, was distressed by the supposed leaks reported by Blair.

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