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How the media might have helped George Zimmerman go free

July 15, 2013

By Dylan Matthews

Saturday night, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges relating to his killing of Trayvon Martin last year. That’s a pretty improbable outcome for a murder trial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2006, 81 percent of murder defendants were convicted: 42 percent due to a plea, 39 percent after a trial. Just 5 percent of cases ended with an acquittal at trial. Other than driving offenses, murder has the highest conviction rate of just about any felony:

conviction_rates

So how did Zimmerman get off? Maybe it’s just that publicity makes convictions less likely. Between Robert Blake, Casey Anthony and, of course, O.J. Simpson, it isn’t hard to think of high-profile murder defendants who beat the odds and got acquitted. Do juries have a weakness for the famous and accused?

There is extensive research literature on what social scientists call “pretrial publicity” or PTP. Many studies rely on an experimental design in a laboratory setting, where participants — typically college students, or potential jurors in the community where the research is being conducted — are exposed to different types and amounts of media coverage about either real or fictional cases, and then asked about their feelings toward the defendant.

Most of the research along these lines finds significant effects, most of which suggest that exposure to facts about the defendant or the crime can bias would-be jurors against him or her. “Media coverage containing case-specific information, inadmissible information, and emotional accounts of trials has the potential to influence jurors’ perceptions of defendant culpability, which may lead to a significantly greater chance that a defendant is ultimately found guilty,” write Lisa Spano, Jennifer Groscup and Steven Penrod in their summary of the research. Survey evidence about real trials actually shows stronger effects than do experiments.

So that would seem to suggest that publicity leaves high-profile defendants worse off. But more recent research has looked at “positive PTP,” or pro-defendant coverage, which has a similar but opposite impact. Read the rest at the Washington Post.

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