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Attorneys debate impact of reality crime TV shows on the judicial process

October 22, 2014
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Terre Haute attorney Dennis Majewski recalled the trial in the early 1980s where he defended the leader of a motorcycle gang accused of killing a coal miner in a bar fight.

After the defendant posted bond, coal miners began picketing outside the Vigo County courthouse and in front of Majewski’s law office. The attention and publicity caused the attorney to request a change of venue, worried he would not be able to seat an impartial jury.

That trial took place before the Internet and before shows could be repeated over and over on anyone’s personal computer, Majewski pointed out.

The advent of the World Wide Web and 24-hour cable TV contributed to Majewski’s recent decision to file another motion for a change of venue. The reality television show “Cold Justice” linked Majewski’s client, Earl Taylor, to the 1975 murder of his first wife, Kathy Taylor.
 

Majewski said the TV program carried by the TNT cable network, and a follow-up newspaper article that told viewers the episode was available on YouTube, led him to doubt he could find an untainted jury. He contended the episode was very inflammatory because of statements about his client’s guilt made by the victim’s family, the airing of the photos showing the victim dead on the bathroom floor, and the absence of any disclaimer at the end of the program reminding viewers Taylor is innocent until proven guilty.

“They had already tried the guy on the show,” Majewski said. “They made a comment we have caught the killer. This is it. There is no doubt.”

Crime shows have always been popular with television viewers. Shows about cops and robbers were part of the lineup when broadcast media was just starting and continue to be a mainstay of program offerings.

The reality TV crime shows that follow police as they investigate homicides or cover a trial give people who do not often interact with the legal system a chance to see what happens, said Anthony Fargo, associate professor of journalism in The Media School at Indiana University. They also provide a catharsis by depicting justice being done.

Fargo acknowledged the true crime dramas have the potential to infect a jury pool. However, doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation on possible viewership numbers, he was not convinced the program would have been widely seen across Indiana and in Vigo County.

“I think a majority of viewers are fairly sophisticated about what is on TV,” Fargo said, adding the impact of reality crime shows is probably not as severe as attorneys and judges may think. “(The viewers) know to some extent that the true crime show is being sensationalized.”

Indianapolis attorney Sandra Blevins disagrees.

Lawyers and judges understand the process and are trained to think critically as well as question the facts, she said. When they watch, they know what is being televised is probably not the complete story.

Laypeople, on the other hand, could be swayed in their perceptions of the legal system.

“(A crime show) doesn’t portray the legal system in the best light,” Blevins said. “It taints the judicial and legal system in a way that is unfortunate for society as a whole.”

Blevins is currently representing an Indianapolis man who was the subject of the former reality police show, “The Shift.” The cable program came to the Circle City in 2008 and followed a group of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department detectives as they investigated crimes.

Cameras were rolling when the officers began looking for two suspects in a shooting. On the basis of witness accounts, Carlton Hart was arrested, charged with murder and held in Marion County Jail for 687 days.

After the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, Hart filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, claiming the IMPD violated his Fourth, Sixth and 14th Amendment rights stemming from his false arrest, malicious prosecution and wrongful incarceration.

In court documents, Hart alleged the detectives did not follow proper protocol in securing an identification of the shooters because of the TV show. Hart argued the pressure of meeting production deadlines, and the desire among the detectives to generate stories worthy of primetime and to close the case, led to his arrest.

The District Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in January. Hart, who has since been convicted in another murder, has appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings was a homicide prosecutor in Marion County while “The Shift” was being filmed. He remembered citizens in the community recognizing the detectives and asking for their autographs.

The trials of others who were arrested on the show did sometimes encounter problems during discovery, Cummings said. Namely, the defense attorneys wanted the raw film footage, and either the defense or the prosecutor had to attempt to get the tape from the production crew. This caused delays in getting to trial.

Overall, Cummings said, the cameras did not affect the case. He did note that when the film started rolling, the detectives seemed to become a little showy, but they still did their jobs properly.

Vigo County law enforcement welcomed “Cold Justice” to help with the unsolved murder of Kathy Taylor. Prosecutor Terry Modesitt explained the show brought the resources to re-interview witnesses and look for other witnesses. In addition, the show had access to a crime lab and could re-examine the evidence in a matter of days as compared to months the Indiana State Police lab would need.

The team from the show worked closely with the local detectives and at the end of their investigation presented the findings to Modesitt. He emphasized the show did not pressure Vigo County law enforcement into arresting Earl Taylor. Rather, officers had long suspected him but never had quite enough evidence to file the murder charge.

Modesitt does not think the show will cause a problem with the trial. Local officials verified the show’s lab is certified, and detectives were always present during the investigation so they can provide testimony about what the witnesses said.

“To me, the TV show is irrelevant,” Modesitt said. “It’s about what the evidence is.”

Keeping the influence of television, whether reality shows, fictional dramas or the news media, out of the courtroom is the job of the judge and lawyers, Fargo said. The media will do what it does so lawyers need to be more attentive to questioning jurors.

He added that when people are sitting in a room in the courthouse, answering questions to sit on a jury that could decide whether someone gets sent to prison for life, they take their responsibility seriously. No individual, he said, is going to work to get on a jury so they can throw the book at somebody because of what they saw on TV.

Even Majewski, who described himself as a civil libertarian, was hesitant to advocate for placing restrictions on the media.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” he said, “other than the press exercising some restraint or trying to be more evenhanded in reporting.”•

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