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Media coverage could compromise jury impartiality

In the criminal law system, every defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. In highly publicized cases in which the defendant has already been convicted, so to speak, in the court of public opinion, this basic assumption becomes especially important. The ability to have a fair trial, presided over by an impartial judge, heard by a fair, open-minded jury, is paramount. When excessive media coverage of a local murder makes it hard to find 12 unbiased individuals, defense attorneys start thinking about a change in venue.

The recent kidnapping and murder of a 19-year-old female University of Louisiana-Lafayette student has raised such issues. Since the student first went missing, the media have descended upon the relatively small city of Lafayette in droves. National news networks have covered the case, and talk of it has rarely been far from locals' lips. When police arrested a 33-year-old offshore worker and charged him with first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping, the frenzy escalated even more.

Defense attorneys, though, have their work cut out for them in seeking a change in venue. The precedents are few. According to the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court, there hasn't been a single case moved to another location in the 13 years he's been in office.

Even the highly publicized case of serial killer Derrick Todd Lee did not result in a change in venue. The judge in that case-who had discretion to change the venue-was satisfied that the jurors were all unaffected by what they had heard about the case.

So will the argument likely go in Lafayette. According to the latest census results, there are approximately 168,000 eligible jurors in Lafayette Parish. Finding 12 who are unfamiliar with the case may be difficult but, prosecutors are sure to argue, not impossible.

Whether venue is ultimately changed or not, it is critical in this case that the defendant receive a fair trial.

Source: The Advocate, "News could spark venue debate in murder trial," Richard Burgess, July 22, 2012

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