According to the sixth amendment to the United States Constitution, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district, wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
That second part, an impartial jury, becomes more and more difficult, as the media becomes more pervasive. As the editor of a local media outlet, I am acutely aware of the responsibilities we have to inform the public of newsworthy events in our coverage area, but also of the rights of the people we cover.
Last December, Gabriele Ballowe’s vehicle hit Barry “Bob” Moss as he walked or rode his bicycle down the side of Route 5. People saw Ballowe and Moss leave a restaurant and a friend’s house, respectively, but what happened at the time of the accident is between the driver of the Ford Explorer and Moss, who died at the scene.
Ballowe, while the only suspect in the case, has not been charged. A grand jury voted to “no bill” the case, meaning that there was not sufficient evidence, in its opinion, to indict her.
Last week, I received a phone call from a resident, asking why we have not been running similar stories, in recent weeks.
“Are you afraid of the legal ramifications?” the caller asked. While all media outlets operate under a strict ethical and legal code, the legality of reporting on the case’s developments do come into play, but not alone. Perhaps equally important is the trial by media that takes place when a high-profile or high-interest legal case comes to light.
The Moss case is similar to the case against Dr. James Corasanti, who killed Alix Rice in July of 2011. That case raised significant public outrage against the doctor, who had left the scene, hid his car and attempted to remove all evidence of his involvement. When he was acquitted of most of the charges, residents were livid.
It was the topic of every lunch table, water cooler and social media conversation for weeks, and almost everyone opposed Corasanti. He had been convicted before he ever stepped foot in a courtroom.
The emotional stakes are high in cases like Rice’s and Moss’s. In Rice’s case, she was a young girl hit so violently, she was decapitated. The man who struck her was a rich doctor coming from a country club, at a time when the Occupy movement was having a heyday vilifying the “1 percent.”
This was no ordinary drunk driving case, and although Corasanti was acquitted of all but a misdemeanor, some good did come out of it. Her death sparked Alix’s Law, which closes a loophole that allows drunk drivers to leave the scene of an accident, claiming they did not know injury or damage had occurred.
In addition, the young girl’s legacy lives on in organizations Rockin’ For Rice and the Alix Rice Peace Park Foundation, which were formed to increase awareness about drunk driving and to raise funds toward the establishment of a community skate park, in recognition of her skateboarding hobby.
Since Moss’s accident, there has been picketing outside Ballowe’s bar, the South Side Beach Club. There have been signs, stickers, and now, a $11,000 reward for information. There has also been extensive coverage throughout the media of the case, much of which is based on “a source,” “authorities,” “people who are close to ...” and so on.
In this day and age, the news is at our fingertips, 24/7. With the click of a mouse, we can find out the latest developments from 30 seconds ago, if someone with a cell phone or an Internet connection and a Facebook, Twitter or blog feed are in the room. We’re used to live feeds of everything from board meetings to baseball games and even court cases. In an age of constant information, we don’t like to be left in the dark, even if it means someone’s reputation is being smeared by up-to-the-minute, not necessarily fact-checked “news.”
The court of public opinion, in which suspects are “tried” by media accounts of the case before the jury has issued its verdict, is nothing new. In the famous O.J. Simpson case, one a “Today” producer once called “the biggest story I have ever seen,” The Los Angeles Times covered the case on its front page for more than 300 days after the murders and the Big Three networks gave it more air time than the Bosnian War and the Oklahoma City bombing combined. In all, the trial was covered in 2,237 news segments from 1994-97. And that was before Twitter, Facebook and “citizen journalist” bloggers and online living room pundits.
More recently the Duke lacrosse case received widespread coverage almost as soon as the news broke. Outlets that have been accused of taking a pro-prosecution slant include USA Today, The Herald-Sun, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, News and Observer and Independent Weekly, as well as feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte who called those who defended the students “rape-loving scum.” It was also extensively covered by Nancy Grace, except during the dismissal of charges, when a substitute host broke that news. The NAACP urged an investigation of the facts and a jury trial before the public formed an opinion, but it was too late. The public already had. Did the Duke lacrosse players do it? At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. The public has made its decision, before a jury even got to the building.
Jurors can’t remain impartial when the airwaves, Internet and newspapers are full of he-said/she-said about the case at hand, whether or not it had made it to a courtroom. Gone are the days when jurors could lock themselves in a hotel, away from televisions and newspapers, for the duration of the trial. Now, trials like these almost feel over before they’ve begun, even if the defendants are eventually acquitted.
What many people forget, when they’re clamoring for the latest juicy coverage, is that the accused have to live their lives after the case is closed, regardless of the verdict. They have to live with their consciences, but they are also confronted with reams of blogs, articles and archived television media. After that gavel comes down, for many defendants, the journey toward rebuilding their reputations, whatever that means, has just begun.
That’s why The Sun is so careful about covering cases like Moss’s. There is abundant circumstantial evidence, but as yet, there are no charges. Just like Erie County District Frank A. Sedita III does not feel comfortable bringing the case before a jury without more facts, The Sun did not feel comfortable running an expose on a story before we had several sides and enough information to present a balanced, accurate story with named, responsible sources.
This is the age of 24/7 news coverage, but it is also the age of Internet bullying. As little as two decades ago, people under fire could go home and escape the barrage. Now, it’s everywhere from our television screens to our computers, even the phones that many people keep on their person at all times. Everyone from middle schoolers to nursing home residents with iPads are guilty of throwing a few digital punches behind the safety of a screen, now and then. But as a journalism outlet, we feel that we are above those kinds of scuffles, and continuously work to remain above the constant fray. We invite all residents to join us.
Most importantly, we encourage anyone with information about the Moss case to come forward (see the story on Page 1 and 2 for how) because it’s the right thing to do. But we won’t be gossiping about it on street corners or covering picketing local establishments until guilt is determined in and released from the place where it belongs: the courtroom.