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The Sam Sheppard Trial 2000: The Sheppard Trial Media

Wednesday, February 9, 2000 at 2:23 PM

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The public's right to know versus a person's privacy is in the spotlight again at the Sheppard trial. Judge Ronald Suster's ruling to deny access of the media during jury selection is causing concern among journalists covering this third Sheppard trial. In 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was convicted of killing his wife Marilyn in their Bayview home. 10 years later, an appeals court freed Sheppard after determining he received an unfair trial....and the alleged culprit was the media for excessive pre-trial publicity. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo reports on what yesterday's ruling means and how it affect's the public's right to know.

Judge Ronald Suster had first ruled the media could watch the proceedings either in the open courtroom or via closed circuit television outside the courtroom, down the hallway from the proceedings. Both the prosecution and the defense presented concerns about the privacy of prospective jurors. So he asked the jurors to come into his chambers to go over three areas of questioning, thus barring the public from the proceedings.

Judge Ronald Suster- The juror’s exposure to or beliefs and opinions about this case. Two, personal information about the jurors which could prevent them from serving on a case of this length. And three, any other information in the juror’s personal background which the juror did not want discussed in a public courtroom....I have done this because of my concern for the individual juror’s right and need for privacy.

YP- The media immediately challenged the legality of the judge’s ruling. Kyle Flemming, an attorney for the firm of Baker and Hostetler, is representing the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Kyle Flemming- An alternative to conducting this in chambers, outside of the public’s presence, would be to bring the jurors in the courtroom on a single basis. And ask these three questions of them. The media could, or anyone who is interested in watching the proceedings, could watch on the closed circuit monitor that the court is permitted to set up. And that, therefore, if there are any concerns that the jurors might be less than candid in responding to the first topic, would be addressed in that fashion, because there wouldn’t be a large crowd in the courtroom.

YP- Micah Green, a lawyer representing NBC affiliate WKYC, added that the public could accommodate restrictions on access to the proceedings without being entirely shut-out.

Micah Green- ...we believe that those concerns can be fully satisfied and addressed by the procedure that was suggested, which is having proceedings in open court with reminders and admonitions to the jury that if there is anything that they believe is particularly sensitive or personal, that they can approach those things...outside of public view. We do not believe the question of what jurors may have heard in the past, their prior understanding of the prior cases or facts is something that rises to the level that it overbalances the public’s right to know as set forth in the controlling case law.

YP- Despite those arguments, Judge Suster said he would seal the information given by the prospective jurors until after a jury had been seated for the case.

Judge Ronald Suster- The court continues to find that conducting this limited aspect of the case off camera has enabled the jurors to be candid about their personal situations and reveal information of a sensitive nature...keeping the answers to these few sensitive questions from public scrutiny ensures that those persons who may still be added to the jury pool...will not be similarly exposed to these answers.

YP- But the closing of part of the voir dire, the jury selection process, is not sitting well with some journalists including Jim Neff, who maintains that the public’s right to know is being infringed upon. Neff is former professor from Ohio State University and an ex-Plain Dealer reporter who’s spent the last 10 years working on a book on the Sheppard case.

Jim Neff- I think the public has the right to know how the jury is selected. That was an issue in the first trial. It’s an issue of fairness. Journalists are going to continue to be able to bring information to the public and are going to fight to do so without invading any privacy. No one wants to invade anyone’s privacy. How the jury is selected is an issue of fairness and the people have a right to sit in and know that information.

YP- An attorney for NBC affiliate WKYC says they have several legal options to contest Judge Ronald Suster’s ruling. Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton says the paper will most likely file a motion with the Ohio Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the judge’s ruling. For INFOHIO, I’m Yolanda Perdomo in Cleveland.

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