What does ‘venue’ mean in an age of social media?

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

It’s been a year since 19-year-old Amanda Bach, a recent graduate of Portage High School in Northwest Indiana, was found dead.  The case, in which another teen, Dustin McCowan, the son of a Crown Point police officer, is charged with murder, has been the focus of intense fascination and speculation, with rumors swirling about conspiracies and false leads.

It is, in short, the sort of case – obsessively focused on by folks in one community – that would seem ripe for a change of venue.  And McGowan’s attorneys, John Vouga and Nicholas Barnes, made that argument at a pre-trial hearing in August.  But Porter County Superior Judge William Alexa denied the request, announcing in the packed courtroom, “I think you can get a fair trial in this town, even with the publicity.”

The defense isn’t sure that’s true and they’ve filed motions for an out-of-county jury to be seated.  There’s not much they can do, though, about the pretrial publicity that could be prejudicing potential jurors.  After all, the case is not just the talk of the diners and barber shops and beauty parlors in town.  It’s also a hot topic online and, especially, on social media.  The “Justice for Amanda” Facebook page has nearly 17,000 likes.  So the question of whether another community might be less mired in the details of the case is not exactly the right question: the community is not just a physical place anymore.  People around the country (and even the world, with dozens of folks in the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany also checking out the page) have access to the same hyper-local discussion of the case that Porter County residents do.

What can be done, then, to ensure that jury members come to the case without bias or preconceptions?

Some argue that we need professional jurors who understand the law and aren’t likely to be swayed by external factors such as pretrial publicity.  Others suggest that rigorous jury questionnaires and aggressive voir dire are sufficient to weed out those whose objectivity has been tainted by media or other communication about a high-profile case.

There is another possibility.

Consider, for a moment, the idea that the answer to this dilemma might be more pretrial communication, rather than less.  What if, instead of holding our noses at the thought of – gasp – trying cases in the media, we worked on finding appropriate forums for the discussion of issues in the news?  What if the press was held to a “bring at least as much light as heat” standard in its coverage?  What if social media sites offered moderation and education, rather than simply functioning as echo chambers?

Or, you know, we could just keep pretending that the current system is working perfectly well.

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