COMMENTARY: The Alex Murdaugh Murder Cases, by MTSU Journalism Professor Larry Burriss

Mar 07, 2023 at 07:20 am by WGNS News

A murder case involving multiple victims that unfolded in South Carolina recently came to a close with a GUILTY verdict. The story made the news around the country and was even turned into a Netflix mini-series. MTSU Journalism Professor Larry Burriss has more with today’s media commentary…

CBS News Story: More on the Alex Murdaugh Murders with CBS News Correspondent Nikki Battiste in Walterboro, South Carolina… Scroll down for more on Larry Burriss. 


Verbatim of the Larry Burriss Commentary (Audio at Top of This Article): “Last week the double-murder case against Alex Murdaugh came to an end with his conviction and sentencing.

However, during the numerous and varied pre-trial and trial activities, the problem of balancing the Sixth Amendment guarantees of a fair trial with the First Amendment guarantees of a free press were again evident.

Simply put, the central question is, "Do newspaper, broadcast and Internet accounts of crime influence jurors and perhaps bias them against the accused?"

In the American judicial system, guilt or innocence is to be determined in a court of law. Jurors are expected to render a decision based on the evidence and testimony presented during a trial, not based on reports in the media. That is as it should be.

However, the argument is sometimes made that if potential jurors read or see or hear anything in the news media about the trial or about the accused, they will, somehow, be unable to put those news reports aside, and will be unable to render a judgment based on the evidence and testimony presented. That argument, to say the least, is debatable.

In many ways, a free press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, provides a way of implementing the concept of a fair trial as expressed in the Sixth Amendment. The First Amendment allows the public to see the judicial process in action, so the public at large can determine if the system itself is working in the best interests of both the state and the accused.

In many countries, secret trials, unfortunately, are the norm, and the public at large is served a steady diet of rumors, misconceptions, and outright lies about what is happening to those accused of crimes.

It is also a myth that attorneys are interested in obtaining a completely unbiased jury. Defense attorneys try to impanel those people who will be sympathetic to their clients. The prosecution wants jurors who will find a defendant guilty. Both sides rely on biases, pre-conceived notions, and the recognition that personality traits can indicate which jurors will render favorable verdicts.

To be sure, news coverage can inflame public opinion both for and against a defendant. But, the judicial system itself has a host of remedies at its disposal. Juries can be sequestered. A change of venue can be ordered. The judicial system itself, through the appeals process, can negate any supposed biases produced by pre-trial publicity.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not shown itself unwilling to order new trials when it has perceived what it has called "a pattern of, deep and bitter prejudice" against a defendant.

The American system of government needs both a free press and fair trials. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants' rights. The First Amendment can guarantee the public knows those rights are not being violated. - I’m Larry Burriss.”


About Dr. Burriss - Larry Burriss, professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.). He has worked in print and broadcast news and public relations, and has published extensively in both academic and popular publications. He has won first place in the Tennessee Associated Press Radio Contest nine times. Dr. Burriss' publications and presentations include studies of presidential press conferences, NASA photography, radio news, legal issues related to adolescent use of social networking sites, legal research, and Middle Earth.

Dr. Burriss has served as director of the School of Journalism, dean of the College of Mass Communication and president of the MTSU Faculty Senate. He was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served on active duty in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia, Central America, Europe and the Pentagon.


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