Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Fellow in the Humanities
2008—2009 Forum on Change
Roman Holidays: The Role of Publicity in Criminal Trials
The media sensationalized the 1954 trial of Sam Sheppard (accused of murdering his wife), his acquittal, and post-prison years. The intense coverage set journalistic and legal precedents, motivating various judges to address, in legal terms, the media’s role during pretrial investigations and courtroom proceedings. This thesis uses newspapers, magazines and court opinions to explore the extent of the media blitz, and addresses the question of whether the press compromised justice. This thesis also examines the case's continuing relevance: Why was this particular case so popular? Why did the public react with a collective desire to convict Sheppard? As an indelible presence in American public memory, how did the case change the legality and culture of trial coverage in the US? The recurring presence of the trial in publicity-related cases today highlights the irreconcilable tension between a public's right to a free press and a defendant's right to a fair and speedy trial.