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The Challenge Of Running Fair Trials In A Media-Saturated Age


Heart-breaking testimony from victims in the trial of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev last week. Tsarnaev's defense wanted to move the trials so this kind of testimony wouldn't be heard in Boston, but the judge refused. To understand how judges deal with those concerns, we turned to Judge Gary Randall. He says that in this media-saturated age, it's pretty hard for attorneys to convince him that moving the trial is worth the trouble.

GARY RANDALL: You really have to show that you can find another community that isn't going to have the same amount of information, that would be equally as prejudicial to the defendant as the people in Boston.

RATH: The judge in the Boston bombing case has decided not to isolate the jury. What is your opinion about sequestering or quarantining the jury in big cases like that?

RANDALL: Well, I think you get kind of get an unnatural result. You're taking away the lifestyle of your 12 jurors and however many alternates you have. And today, that would probably include limiting television exposure, limiting radio exposure, somehow limiting computer access and having some communication with their family and the people around them because they're used to doing it electronically. So if you're going to interrupt people's lives that severely, what are you going to do to the defendant? Is it going to reflect badly on that defendant? And that's a - that's a huge concern.

RATH: So people in juries these days - not only are they able to access information instantly on the Internet, they're also able to post information instantly. When it comes to social media, as a judge, how do you - how do you stay on top of that? How do you control that?

RANDALL: Well, I have to be attuned and make sure that the lawyers are doing their job. And they need to be checking to make sure. If you've got - if you've got heavy-duty posters or if you have people that are commenting, they need to bring it to the attention of the court.

Now, from a judge's perspective, my job is education. And that starts when the people come in to start their jury duty. We have posters all over that say this is what you can do, this is what you can't do. We tell them at every break in the trial, you may use your electronic devices, but you may not use it for the purpose of researching any information in this case, any of the parties or to find out any information. And if in any way any information comes to your attention, you must disregard it. And if you can't disregard it, you must tell the court.

RATH: In recent years, has the - have jury pools grown, or are you seeing more challenges to jurors then in the past?

RANDALL: In high profile cases, yes. I mean, it takes - in a high profile murder case, it can take as many as 180 jurors to be able to get 12 people who have possibly not heard about the case or can handle the information that they have about the case and haven't formed an opinion.

RATH: Judge Randall, you've sat on a number of National Bar Association committees and presidential task forces. Are there new skills you think judges need to operate in a media saturated environment - you know, skills that may not - may not have been necessary 10 years ago?

RANDALL: There's no - or 17 years ago, when I started - there's no question about it. Our job is completely different. We didn't have the job of educating jurors and identifying what damage they could really cause to the trial or to a defendant if they consider evidence not presented to them in the courtroom. And, of course, the rewriting of jury instructions - specifically, giving the jury information about what they can and can't do and when you give those instructions and how you give it to them...

RATH: Do those instructions today have words that you just wouldn't understand 20 years ago?

RANDALL: Absolutely. I mean, there are five paragraphs in the initial instructions that you give to a jury to tell them what their job is that discusses social media and evidence that they receive inside and outside of the courtroom. None of those were there when I started as a judge in 1997.

RATH: The Honorable Gary Randall, judge for the Fourth Judicial District Court in Omaha, Neb. Judge Randall, thanks very much.

RANDALL: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.