I’m not the first one to notice the potential analogies between the current Cheshire murder case and the long ago Kansas multiple homicide made famous by Truman Capote in his masterwork, In Cold Blood.
In fact, one author has gone so far as to capitalize on the comparisons being made, inserting Capote’s title into his own book on the Connecticut case, "In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed In Cold Blood." Needless to say, his choice in titles is controversial and criticized.
That there’s already a book on this case — published and promoted last fall, long before the trial setting — isn’t surprising. This case has become the focus of many people across the country, looking at the case from many different perspectives. However, given our current media culture it’s also true that once again, the danger of a trial by media rears its ugly head.
Trial by Media?
The New York Times is giving detailed coverage of this case, as are many different media outlets. There is no denying it is an event that bodes well for ratings.
A quaint town in Connecticut. Middle of the night. A family — handsome dad (a doctor), pretty mom, two cute teenaged daughters — sleeps, unaware that two men are breaking into their New England cottage. The father is beaten and tied up. The mother and one of the girls are raped. A fire is started. The mother is strangled. Both teen daughters die, tied to their beds, from smoke inhalation. Only the dad survives.
This is a horrific event and no one can help but be shocked at what happened here. Of course, the trial of the two parolees charged with these crimes will be covered by the press. As it should be — criminal defense attorneys do not want to deny media coverage of criminal cases. Those journalistic eyes on the process, the investigation, the procedure, etc. all aid in insuring that justice is done and we don’t have Kangeroo Courts in this country.
However, due to the well known nature of this case, jury selection will take a long time. It has to — to find those who can serve as jurors without bias or prejudice cannot be easy here.
Not two days into jury selection, one potential juror already broke into tears during voir dire, just listening to the charges being read and many in the panel are being excused after telling the judge they know all about the case, "it’s all over the papers."
Added to this media complication is the fact that this is a death penalty trial and under Connecticut law, selection of jurors is much more detailed since a man’s life is being considered as part of the sentence, should guilt be found. Aggravating factors involving the crimes as well as mitigating circumstances involving the defendant will all come into play.
One more complication here: after the Connecticut legislature finalized a bill repealing the death penalty in their state, the governor vetoed the bill, giving as her sole reason for doing so — the Cheshire killings.
Media Has Already Influenced Jury Pool – Has There Already Been a Trial by Media?
The media’s impact has already impacted jury selection – it could take months to seat a jury in the Cheshire case. Whether or not this becomes another example of trial by media is still somewhat debatable. Detailed national coverage of this case goes back two years.
It’s not hard to predict that the media scrutiny will only increase once the trial actually begins. And lots of defense folk and death penalty opponents will be watching the Cheshire proceedings as they unfold. Because — as I written before for the Orlando Sentinel — trial by the media is wrong, and no matter how horrific the Cheshire murders were, our system cannot condone the media suplanting the jury in this, or any other, case. Unfortunately, it may well be the case in the Cheshire proceedings that a trial by media is already a fait accompli.