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Law School Case Brief

Sheppard v. Maxwell - 384 U.S. 333, 86 S. Ct. 1507 (1966)


Due process requires that the accused receive a trial by an impartial jury free from outside influences. Given the pervasiveness of modern communications and the difficulty of effacing prejudicial publicity from the minds of the jurors, the trial courts must take strong measures to ensure that the balance is never weighed against the accused. And appellate tribunals have the duty to make an independent evaluation of the circumstances. Of course, there is nothing that proscribes the press from reporting events that transpire in the courtroom. But where there is a reasonable likelihood that prejudicial news prior to trial will prevent a fair trial, the judge should continue the case until the threat abates, or transfer it to another county not so permeated with publicity. In addition, sequestration of the jury is something the judge should raise sua sponte with counsel. If publicity during the proceedings threatens the fairness of the trial, a new trial should be ordered. Reversals are but palliatives; the cure lies in those remedial measures that will prevent the prejudice at its inception.


Defendant Sheppard, accused of murdering his wife, was tried before a jury in the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Both before and during the trial, which began two weeks before an election in which the trial judge and the chief prosecutor were candidates for judgeships, defendant was the subject of extensive newspaper, radio, and television publicity. The publicity included many matters unfavorable to the defendant which were never presented in court. The trial judge denied various requests by defense counsel for a continuance, change of venue, mistrial, and interrogation of the jurors as to their exposure to the publicity. During the trial, which lasted over two months, reporters were seated at a press table inside the bar, a few feet from the jury box; the corridors, the rooms throughout the courthouse, and most of the seats in the courtroom were filled with representatives of the news media; newsmen handled and photographed trial exhibits lying on the counsel table; radio broadcasting was done from a room next to the room where the jury recessed and deliberated; courtroom proceedings that were supposed to be private were overheard and reported by the press; and the noise of newsmen moving in and out of the courtroom made it difficult for counsel and witnesses to be heard. Before trial, the names and addresses of the jurors were published, and they received letters and phone calls concerning the case. During the jurors' deliberation at the end of the trial, they were permitted to make phone calls. Prospective witnesses were interviewed by the news media, which in many instances disclosed their testimony, and the full verbatim testimony of witnesses who had testified was available in the press to witnesses who had not yet testified. The trial judge made no effort to control the release of leads, information, and gossip to the press by the prosecuting attorneys, the coroner, police officers, or witnesses. Defendant was convicted of second degree murder, his conviction of which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of Cuyahoga County and the Ohio Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Several years later, Sheppard filed a petition for habeas corpus proceedings in the federal district court, which held that Sheppard had been denied a fair trial and was entitled to be released. The State was granted 60 days within which to take further action against him, but the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed by a divided vote. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did Sheppard receive a fair trial consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?




The Court concluded that Sheppard did not receive a fair trial consistent with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While the Court could not say that Sheppard was denied due process by the trial judge's refusal to take precautions against the influence of pretrial publicity alone, the trial judge's later rulings had to be considered against the setting in which the trial was held. In light of this background, the Court believed that the arrangements made by the trial court with the news media caused Sheppard to be deprived of that judicial serenity and calm to which he was entitled. There was no doubt that the deluge of publicity reached at least some of the jury. The trial court did not fulfill his duty to protect Sheppard from the inherently prejudicial publicity that saturated the community and to control disruptive influences in the courtroom.

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