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From Dateline (October 28, 2004)

Pretrial Publicity: Does it Impact Verdicts?

Think of some of the high-profile jury cases you’ve heard of lately. Scott Peterson. Michael Jackson. Will pretrial publicity hurt them? Help them? Have any impact at all?

Most academic research indicates that pretrial publicity does make a difference. Jon Bruschke, associate professor of human communications studies and one of the directors of the campus debate team, thinks otherwise.

“I became interested in the impact of pretrial publicity during the O.J. Simpson trial,” he said. “At that point, many blamed the media for the verdict. But when we conducted research on cases other than Simpson, we discovered that pretrial publicity had very little to do with the outcome.

”In fact, Bruschke and William E. Loges of Oregon State University have conducted research on more than 300 murder cases. Their results were published this year in Free Press vs. Free Trials, Examining Publicity’s Role in Trial Outcomes published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

“The kind of trials we covered tended to be the type that are generally of interest to the media,” said Bruschke. “However, there tends to be a massive gap between the time of the arrest or event – anywhere from 10 months to three years – and the time of the trial. The public often forgets what they’ve seen or heard. It also appears that jurors really do try hard to base their decisions on the facts presented during a case. That’s encouraging because it tells us that jurors take their jobs seriously.”

Bruschke also reports that if criminal defendants are brought to trial, there is about an 80 percent chance that they will be convicted – and about 90 percent of them plea-bargain to receive a lighter sentence.

“What makes the most difference in whether or not a defendant is found guilty is economics,” Bruschke said. “If you have the means, you can hire the best attorneys around. You have resources to put together an outstanding defense team ... and that can often overwhelm the prosecution.

”So why does Bruschke’s research refute so many others who claim that pretrial publicity produces bias?

“Well, much of the research was never linked to the outcomes of the trial,” Bruschke explained. “Many of the current theories are based on classroom studies; not actual court cases. In some of these cases, mock juries didn’t have a chance to deliberate. Or the evidence presented was biased. We decided that in order to get a definitive answer, we had to apply research based on real trials – not mock trials.

”And what they found was vastly different.

“Most pretrial coverage casts defendants in a negative light; however, in 1,100 felony murder and bank robbery cases we studied, there was no statistical difference between those trials with adverse pretrial publicity and those that received virtually no publicity,” he said.