Trial Raises Questions on Power of Public Sentiment

WASHINGTON -- It was trial as sport, with play-by-play commentators, televised outbursts from waiting crowds and, in the English au pair's hometown, images of champagne corks flying as the judge threw out the jury's murder verdict, changed it to manslaughter and set Louise Woodward free.


Like the O.J. Simpson case two years earlier, the trial in the death of a Massachusetts infant drew millions of people to their television sets and evoked an outpouring of public opinion on whether justice was served.


But as the public has become intoxicated with big trials, legal experts are focusing on a central question: Can public passion taint a justice system that is intended to be impartial?


Trials are supposed to reflect the sentiments of the community -- a state brings charges on behalf of "the people'' and a jury is made up of one's peers -- but what happens when public involvement turns into public influence? Does the public sentiment, captured by pollsters, talk radio hosts and television commentators, ever sway a judge? If that happens, are the interests of justice served?


In reducing Woodward's sentence Monday, Judge Hiller Zobel himself raised the issue by acknowledging that the public eye was upon him.


"Judges must follow their oaths and do their duty, heedless of editorials, letters, telegrams, picketers, threats, petitions, panelists and talk shows,'' he said. "In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite.''


Few are suggesting that Zobel bowed to popular opinion, but the intense media coverage and public attention cannot help but raise the specter that in high-profile cases like Woodward's, judges feel the same pressure that any human being would.


"This isn't an election or a popularity contest,'' said Nancy Luque, a former federal prosecutor and now defense lawyer in the District of Columbia. "While I think that the judge is right, that 'justice' has to prevail, I'm not always sure it can when the lobbying is so intense and so publicized.''


The intense public interest in trials today is often driven by televised coverage and fed by media polls that, some argue, lead people to believe what they think matters, or at least ought to.


Before Zobel reduced Woodward's murder conviction, more than 90 percent of the people polled in Massachusetts said they thought it should be cut or wiped out. Afterward, a USA Today/CNN poll found that 52 percent approved of the decision by the judge, 30 percent disapproved and 18 percent didn't know. Most people, however, thought the 19-year-old au pair should have been sentenced to more time than the nine months she already had served.


When the police officers accused of beating fleeing Los Angeles motorist Rodney King were acquitted in 1992 and riots broke out, the federal government immediately charged the police under civil rights law and won convictions against two of the officers.


After O.J. Simpson was acquitted in a criminal trial, a majority of white Americans said they thought the jury verdict was wrong. In the civil trial that followed, a predominantly white jury found Simpson liable in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.


With cameras in the courtroom and programs such as CNN's "Burden of Proof,'' public interest in provocative trials has only increased. To "Burden of Proof'' co-host Greta Van Susteren, that's a good thing, if it means people learn about the American justice system.


But she expressed concern that people who have watched only snippets think they know the truth of a case.


"The only thing that scares me about trials is polls,'' she said Tuesday. "You are asking people who didn't watch the trial who should win. That is extremely troubling.''