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The Sam Sheppard Trial 2000: CourtTV Reporter Clara Tuma Talks with 90.3’s Yolanda Perdomo

Wednesday, February 23, 2000 at 2:01 PM

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Clara Tuma is a reporter for Court TV who's been specializing in legal journalism for 14 years. She's covered some of the highest profile trials in the nation, including the trials of former au pair Louise Woodward, Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson, South Carolina's Susan Smith, and Texas cadet killers David Graham and Diane Zamora. She also covered the War Crimes Tribunal from the Hague. Prior to joining Court TV, Ms. Tuma was a reporter at Texas Lawyer, a newspaper covering the Texas legal system, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the now defunct Houston Post. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo spoke to Clara Tuma about the Sam Sheppard trial and the media coverage that has surrounded this historic case.

Clara Tuma- It’s unfortunate but it’s a fact that in most high profile cases, part of the jury selection is done behind closed doors. The media coverage in well publicized case is so intense that the judge’s often times want the jurors to feel free to share personal information. And jurors aren’t dummies. The can look at the audience and see the people writing things down and know that what they say will be in the newspaper, will be on television. And this judge is afraid that that might intimidate some of the jurors, so he’s doing it behind closed doors. Legally, he may be on solid ground, but it’s unfortunate that he feels that he has to do that.

YP- You’re saying that the it’s unfortunate because the public’s right to know is being infringed upon?

CT- I wouldn’t say it’s the public’s right to know that’s infringed upon. The whole reason for open courtrooms is because having a courtroom where people can see what’s going on has long been deemed to be an issue of fairness. That helps keep the process fair. When the public can know what’s going on in our courtrooms. And so all of it that can be open, should be open. The courts have held that since the beginning of time in this country.

YP- In this case, the judge put different types of media restrictions. There is a closed circuit televison, but they’re not allowed to use the sound or the video of that. So even the presence of a journalist would be somewhat intimidating to a juror, even though they’re not being recorded in any way?

CT- The judge has ruled that even being in an open courtroom would be intimidating to jurors. He feels by doing it behind closed doors, in private, that the jurors may feel more free to share what they know about this case, what they’re lives are like, and then anything about their past that might be embarrasing or just too personal to say in a public forum. He’s decided this is the best way to do it.

YP- And when you say this case in particular, what they know about it, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know anything about Sam Sheppard or his story?

CT- I don’t think any of these jurors will come into this case with a blank slate. In that case they’d say, “Oh, Sam Sheppard, who’s he? Gosh, what is that about? Is he the playwright Sam Sheppard? What’s going on?”. But I don’t think you’ll find anybody like that. I think every juror will know at least the basic facts of this case. Now, that’s OK to find a jury. You don’t have to find people who’ve never heard of it. You have to find people who don’t have such an opinion already well formed that they can’t start from zero and say, “OK, sit and tell me your case and I’ll tell you if you’ve proven your case or not”. That’s what you have to do, is find people who can be fair and impartial. You will not find in Cleveland, Ohio 12 jurors to come sit in this room who’ve never heard of Sam Sheppard. That’s not going to happen.

YP- And how big of a problem is that going to be for the prosecution and the defense?

CT- I think the bigger problem will be finding people who can be in the courtroom for up to 2-3 months. That’s going to be the more difficult problem because you’re taking jurors away from their lives. For that much amount of time, many people can’t be away from their jobs for that long. Even though they won’t be sequestered, they can go home at night, and continue on the weekends to live their normal life. It’s still a major commitment. We’re really asking a lot of jurors to come in and sit in a trial of this length. That’s going to be the bigger problem in finding jurors. I don’t know how the publicity will affect it because it’s all being done in private. We don’t know if that’s a significant problem or not.

YP- The judge is not sequestering this jury as of now. But he is urging them don’t read, don’t watch, don’t listen to anything that has to do with this case. How difficult is that going to be once someone goes home for the weekend, or goes home for the night?

CT- It will be a challenge for these jurors to avoid any mention of this case. Because, of course, imagine that you’re at a picnic or a game and somebody says ‘Hey, Joe is on the Sam Sheppard jury’. The first thing you want to say is, “How’s it going?”, just in casual conversation, and you would obviously mean no disrespect to the court system. But that is violating a court order. So it will be a real challenge to find the 8 jurors and 4 alternates, for a total of 12, who can be strong about that and avoid any mention of it. That means they can’t watch the news. It will be difficult to even watch prime time TV because so many times there are cut-ins that say, “Join us at 11:00 and we’re going to have the Sam Sheppard story. Here’s what happened today”, and they’ll give you just a headline on it, and they need to avoid all of that. So I think it will be a real challenge to jurors. But the judge has ordered them to do it, so it’s not like they’re going to have a choice. That’s a court order.

YP- Are they better off being sequestered?

CT- For two months, being sequestered would be almost unbelievable. And it’s very rare that a jury in a civil case would be sequestered. Very rare. More often than not, that’s done in criminal cases when someone’s liberty, or sometimes even their life, is on the line… Which ever way this jury rules, nobody will go to jail, nobody will face criminal charges. This is a case that will eventually be about money. Perhaps it’s about historical correctness, and making sure the record of the trail is complete in some way. But at the end of it, nobody goes to jail. So it would be unusual for a jury in a civil case to be sequestered. And ... 2-3 months would be asking a lot from citizens.

YP- Because of the publicity that has surrounded this case, do you forsee the judge putting together any more types of restrictions, and can he do that without being challenged?

CT- He has some latitude on what he can do to try to protect this trial from degenerating into something where the media plays more of a role than it should. He’s certainly got some leeway there. But the rules he set up now are designed so that the media gets what it wants, jurors are not exposed to it, and the lawyers can try their cases. Now trying to keep that is something that he has to work at throughout the trial, but that’s been an issue since day one, when we’re trying to balance the rights of a fair trial and a free press. And that’s a constant balancing act. There’s no one answer that works in every case. Back in 1954 we know what happens. We know what the Supreme Court thought about that first case, and they overturned the first case, a Sam Sheppard conviction, because of the way the media acted, inside and outside the courtroom. So this judge is well aware of what can happen if things get out of hand and wants to make sure that he keeps things in hand.

The rules in Ohio, the state law, allows for a camera in the courtroom to come in under limited circumstances. You obviously can’t show the jury. You can’t identify the jurors. That’s a big difference from the first trial, because there was a television camera in that, too. But at this stage in the first trial, jurors names and addresses were already in the paper. People knew who they were throughout the trial. They were photographed. They were in the newspapers, (with) their photos. So they were getting calls at home, not just from their friends, but from people that they didn’t know. They were getting letters from anonymous people saying I think such and such is the case. So they were subject to enormous outside influence because they were identified. And they were identified many times through the trial. The huge difference here is that now, we don’t do that. We don’t identify jurors. If you come to the courtroom and look at them and recognize somebody, maybe you’ll know who the jurors are. They’ll be able to do their job without any outside influence, which is the whole goal - to get people who can come in and decide it only (from) what they hear in the courtroom.

YP- But even not having them (the jurors) not photographed, and not having their audio broadcasted, that’s still a problem for some journalists that say, we’re not going to identify them, but we have the right to be here. And the judge is saying that the juror’s privacy is overruling that right?

CT- Judge Suster has said that he wants the jurors to feel comfortable and to feel free to share their innermost thoughts. And a lot of times what you’ll have in jury selection is they’ll say ‘who knows about this case?’ So you go to juror A and you say, OK Mrs. Jones, what do you know about this case. ‘Oh,not much.’ And then you say, well did you hear about the first trial? “Oh yes, I know he was convicted. And I know he was acquitted...”. And it turns out that she knows a lot. Because they may know a lot, but are not sure enough of their facts to stand up and repeat it in front of an entire group of people, because they might be wrong. And he hopes that in private, they’ll feel free to really lay out what they know. The reason the lawyers want to know that is to try to figure out who has an opinion and who doesn’t, and of people that have an opinion, who can lay those opinions aside. Because I think it would be natural not to have some sort of inkling in this case which way you might lean at this time.

One thing that strikes me is the differences in this case, and particularly the 1954 case. You can just list them. It’s a civil case, not a criminal case. So that’s enormous. Dr. Sheppard is dead, so that’s big. And then the way that the media has been treated and is treating the case so far is significantly different. By this time in the criminal case, there had been months and months of front page headlines. Calling on the coroner to do things. Accusing Sam Sheppard of being a murderer. That had been a never ending barrage. So when the jurors came into the courtroom back in 1954, they faced a different situation than these jurors do. First of all, these won’t be identified. The publicity has not been there concerning this case like it was in 1954. So anybody who says, this is going to be a repeat of it, is wrong. This will be significantly different. And whether that will affect the outcome or not, we’ll see.

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