Court holds that publicity does not create presumption of bias
SIXTH CIRCUIT–In late November, a closely divided federal appeals court in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) affirmed a lower court ruling that a jury in a controversial murder trial was not prejudiced by pretrial publicity.
Splitting 8-7, the appellate court refused to grant a new trial to Lawrence DeLisle, who was convicted in the 1989 drowning of his four children in the Detroit River. DeLisle argued that the jury was biased against him and that he should have been permitted to have any prospective juror with knowledge of his statement to police, which had been excluded from the trial but played for the news media, removed from the jury pool. The appellate court rejected his argument, reasoning that DeLisle’s argument was based on a presumption of prejudice, rather than any actual evidence of juror hostility.
The court also stated that it found no “extraordinary or utterly corrupting” circumstances that gave it reason to impute partiality to jurors who explicitly and firmly stated their lack of bias.
Although the court expressed “distaste for media frenzies,” it said it was not empowered to make broad pronouncements that would reverse a valid state court murder conviction.
Six of the dissenting judges criticized the Michigan judges who had allowed tapes of DeLisle’s statement to police to be played to the news media. According to the six dissenters, “The pretrial publicity in this case would not has been as pervasive, or the use of the confession by the press so incriminating, had the Michigan courts not invited the media into the courtroom and given them what they clamored for.”
Judge Karen Nelson Moore dissented separately, stating that the fact that the source of DeLisle’s coerced statement was the judiciary lent the statement greater credibility, making it less likely that the jurors would disregard what they had heard. Moore wrote that the trial court was able to find seven jurors who did not know that DeLisle had supposedly confessed, and to ensure a fair trial, “it should have found five more.”
In August 1989, with his wife and four children as passengers, DeLisle drove the family’s station wagon into the Detroit River in Wyandotte, Mich. His wife survived, but their four children died. Following a police interrogation, DeLisle moved to suppress a statement he had made to the police indicating that the purposely drove the car into the river. The Wyandotte District Court granted his motion to suppress, rendering the statement inadmissible at trial.
In January 1990, after the media filed a lawsuit seeking access to the tapes of DeLisle’s interrogation, the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing ordered the police to play excerpts from the tapes to media representatives. DeLisle was ultimately found guilty of premeditated murder and was sentenced to five concurrent terms of life imprisonment. After losing his state court appeals, DeLisle applied to the federal court in Detroit for a writ of habeus corpus, alleging constitutional defects in his conviction. The district court denied his application, and Delisle appealed. A split appellate panel decision in December 1997 led to review by the entire court. (Delisle v. Rivers)