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Criminal Cases and the Media: Knowing When To Use – And When Not To Use – The Power of the Press

More and more criminal cases are getting intense media coverage these days. The first big media-driven case in which TV cameras appeared in the courtroom and America watched a criminal trial unfold before our eyes was the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995. Since that trial, criminal cases have been covered by your conventional print and television outlets, but also by tabloids and bloggers alike. Over the past year we have seen how the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011 captivated America and was covered in all forms of media on a daily basis with cameras inside the courtroom. And the cases of Jerry Sandusky, George Zimmerman, Drew Peterson, and James Holmes have all followed suit. All of these cases have thrust the role of their criminal defense attorneys into the limelight.  Thus leading to one very important observation: having a media savvy attorney is utterly important in getting the right message out about one’s case … if the time calls for it.

Two stark contrasts in how criminal attorneys allowed their clients to be interviewed by the media and the effect it has had on their cases are the Jerry Sandusky case and the George Zimmerman case. As we all know, in the fall of 2011 former Penn State Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with over forty (40) counts of sexually abusing young boys.  On November 13th, 2011, his attorney allowed Mr. Sandusky to appear on NBC with Bob Costas to be interviewed about the allegations levied against him. In what was a disastrous decision, Mr. Sandusky all but admitted criminal responsibility on national television during this interview. The decision by his attorney to allow his client to make such statements with serious charges pending against him only further fueled the distain for him only a mere nine days after he was formally charged. The decision to attempt to use the media for a benefit clearly was not the proper one as there was nothing that could be said other than “I did not do this” that could have helped Mr. Sandusky, and he had already accomplished that by entering a plea of not guilty at his arraignment.  We all know how the Sandusky trial played out last month.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the decision of George Zimmerman’s attorney to allow him to appear on Fox News with Sean Hannity on July 18th, 2012. George Zimmerman is the Florida neighborhood watchman who is accused in the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. The issue in this case is not “who done it” but whether or not Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he killed Trayvon Martin. The country and even the police department in Florida are divided on this issue and Zimmerman’s defense team has used the media to further their message of sorrow for the loss to Mr. Martin’s family but also to outline his version of the events:  that he was being viciously attacked by Mr. Martin at the time of the murder. Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the events has not nor will it change and his attorney made the calculated decision to use the media to further their case. It was well prepared, thought out, and Mr. Zimmerman came across very well in the interview – the exact opposite of Mr. Sandusky’s attempt some nine months prior.

The media can be a friend or foe in a criminal case. That is why it is very important to have attorneys who have experience with the media when the time comes to make such a decision. The criminal defense attorneys of Collins, McDonald, & Gann have dealt with the media on countless cases (both print and television), and know when to use  — and maybe more importantly, when not to use —  the media in a given situation.

To see some of our recent media interviews commenting on a number of today’s top issues in criminal law, visit our YouTube channel.

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