384 U.S. 333 (1966), argued 28 Feb. 1966, decided 6 June 1966 by vote of 8 to 1; Clark for the Court, Black in dissent. The threat of prejudicial publicity to a criminal defendant's constitutional rights is as old as the media itself. Traditionally, the Court had placed few constraints on the press in reporting on criminal trials. However, in the 1960s, during a decade of expanding constitutional rights for defendants in criminal actions, the courts reassessed this problem.
In Estes v. Texas (1965), the Court reversed the conviction of a defendant whose trial proceedings had been televised. A plurality of the Court held that the televised proceedings had deprived the accused of his due process rights and that televising of a trial was inherently prejudicial.
In Sheppard the Court reversed the conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife. His case attracted extensive media coverage; after his conviction he served several years in prison before seeking habeas corpus relief in the federal courts. The Supreme Court granted the writ and ordered Sheppard released. It held that Sheppard had been deprived of a fair trial because of the “Roman Holiday” atmosphere surrounding the trial and because the judge failed to minimize the prejudicial impact of massive publicity.
In reversing the conviction, the Court gave heightened consideration to Sixth Amendment interests. Noting that prejudicial news comment on pending trials had become prevalent, it warned trial judges that, when faced with a reasonable likelihood that publicity would prevent a fair trial, they should take certain narrowly tailored measures, such as juror sequestration, to diminish the likelihood of prejudice. Despite the potential dangers of prejudicial publicity recognized in Sheppard, the Supreme Court has continued to give the press substantial freedom in reporting.
Patrick M. Garry