Trial by Media


With high profile court cases receiving more publicity than ever, Maitiú mac Seoin takes a look at the nature of the media circus

On the third of October, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito won their appeals overturning their convictions for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. The final verdict has brought to an end one of the most notoriously incompetent trials of living memory. The investigation has been found to be shoddy, inconclusive, and wracked with allegations of gross misconduct by Italian investigators. The lead investigator, Edgardo Giobbi, claimed he knew Knox was guilty hours after the murder by the ‘provocative’ way she put on protective shoe covers: “We were able to establish guilt by closely observing the suspect’s psychological and behavioural reaction during the interrogation. We don’t need to rely on other kinds of investigation.” The minimal physical evidence linking the two to the scene has since been found to be false, contaminated or circumstantial. The process of Italian law may need to undergo severe review, but nothing has been more shocking than the media circus which has surrounded Amanda Knox in the four years since the murder.

The story had international appeal. It took place in Italy, with an attractive American student and her Italian boyfriend accused of killing a young English girl. The media was obsessed. Each country had their angle. The American press portrayed her as an innocent girl, trapped in a nightmare abroad by European incompetents. Scores of documentaries and TV dramas followed. The Italian and British press defended their own and painted Amanda as a sex-crazed liar. The Italian police leaked information about satanic rituals, Amanda’s sexual history (which they obtained by falsely telling her that she was HIV positive), and bizarre motives for the murder from jealousy to a drug-fuelled rampage. The press lapped it up, dubbing her ‘Foxy Knoxy’. They created their own stories by digging through her Facebook photos, using anything from a picture of her in a Halloween costume or posing in front of an antique gun as ‘evidence’ for her homicidal tendencies. Footage of Amanda being hugged by her boyfriend outside the crime scene or shopping for clothes were made to seem salacious, her friends and family were harangued by journalists and no area of her personal life went unexamined. Whether due to being Italian or not being a notably attractive woman, Raffaele Sollecito was largely ignored.

This sort of obsessive and intrusive trial coverage is not unique. It was also in evidence in the trials of Michael Jackson, both in 2005 for child molestation and the ongoing trial over his death. The current case revolves around whether Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, committed involuntary manslaughter by administering an overdose of sedatives to the star. As with Knox, the media coverage is constant. Not a day goes by without footage of the trial, or information about the prosecution or defence council being broadcast to the world.

Seeing the coverage of that case, you cannot help but be struck with the thought that regardless of guilt, it is impossible to get a fair trial under these circumstances. The judge and jury would have been bombarded day in and day out by damning articles and salacious rumours. There is simply no way to claim that the judge, jury or even the lawyers didn’t have their opinions coloured by the presence of so much coverage. So many journalists try to make their name with these stories, so many newspapers feature promised ‘exclusives’, there was simply too much coverage to ignore. Everyone who picked up a paper, watched the news or even just browsed the internet became intimately informed about the trial.

Knox’s trial was acutely affected by the coverage. The judges were not sequestered, had free access to the claims of the media circus, and seemed to have made up their minds before the trial even began. Even while admitting that there was no evidence, they were convinced of her guilt. The accusations of drug use and promiscuity reportedly doomed her in their eyes, and as she was declared not guilty Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann declared that the sentencing “is the result of the truth that was created in the proceedings. But the real truth may be different. They may be responsible, but the evidence is not there.” Jackson was similarly disadvantaged in his 2005 trial; there is no person in America who could be considered impartial on the subject. A lifetime of media hounding meant that any potential juror would bring a lot of preconceptions, good or bad, to the deliberation.

When the media gets hold of an angle they will wring any bit of public interest out of it to sell stories but when it concerns an ongoing media trial, serious questions must be asked about the appropriateness. Super-injunctions are frequently imposed by footballers having affairs and companies injuring people, such as the famous Tafigura case. If it’s acceptable to prevent the media reporting to prevent the defamation of the guilty, why is it not imposed on those still awaiting the verdict? Trial by media is all consuming, and we all lose out when justice sells papers.