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The right to jury trial guarantees to the criminally accused a fair trial by a panel of impartial, "indifferent" jurors. The failure to accord an accused a fair hearing violates even the minimal standards of due process. A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.
Irvin was tried in an Indiana State Court, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. Six murders had been committed in the vicinity of Evansville, Indiana, and they were extensively covered by news media in the locality, which aroused great excitement and indignation throughout Vanderburgh County, where Evansville is located, and adjoining Gibson County. Shortly after Irvin was arrested, the Prosecutor of Vanderburgh County and Evansville police officials issued press releases, which were intensively publicized, stating that Irvin had confessed to the six murders. When Irvin was indicted in Vanderburgh County, counsel appointed to defend him immediately sought a change of venue, which was granted, but to adjoining Gibson County. Alleging that the widespread and inflammatory publicity had also highly prejudiced the inhabitants of Gibson County against Irvin, his counsel sought a change of venue from that county to a county sufficiently removed from the Evansville locality to permit an unprejudiced and fair trial; but this was denied. At the trial, the jury panel consisted of 430 persons; 268 of these were excused for cause as having fixed opinions as to the guilt of Irvin; and 8 of the 12 who finally served on the jury admitted that they thought Irvin was guilty, but each indicated that, notwithstanding his opinion, he could render an impartial verdict. After Irvin’s conviction had been sustained by the State Supreme Court, he applied to a Federal District Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied.
Was Irvin denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment?
The court found that Irvin was not accorded a fair and impartial trial, to which he was entitled under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Irvin’s right to a jury trial guaranteed him, as accused of committing a crime, a fair trial by a panel of impartial, indifferent jurors. Petitioner's verdict was to be based upon the evidence developed at trial, regardless of the heinousness of the crime charged or petitioner's apparent guilt. Here, the Court found that the build-up of prejudice was clear and convincing. The force of continued adverse publicity caused a sustained excitement and fostered a strong prejudice against Irvin. A pattern of deep and bitter prejudice was shown to be present. With his life at stake, it was not requiring too much that Irvin be tried in an atmosphere undisturbed by so huge a wave of public passion and by a jury other than one in which two-thirds of the members admitted, before hearing any testimony, to possessing a belief in his guilt.