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U.S. Supreme Court

Maryland v. Baltimore Radio Show, 338 U.S. 912 (1950)

Maryland v. Baltimore Radio Show

No. 300

Decided Jan. 9, 1950

338 U.S. 912

Opinion of MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER respecting the denial of the petition for writ of certiorari.

The Criminal Court of Baltimore City found the respondents guilty of contempt and imposed fines for broadcasting over local radio stations matter relating to one Eugene H. James at a time when he was in custody on a charge of murder. The facts upon which these findings were based are best narrated in the authoritative statement of the trial court:

"A little girl in one of the parks of Washington, D.C., had been murdered under horrible and tragic circumstances. Some ten days later, little Marsha Brill was dragged from her bicycle on one of the public thoroughfares of Baltimore City while in the company, or at least in the vicinity, of two of her playmates, and there stabbed to death. The impact of those two similar crimes upon the public mind was terrific. The people throughout the City were outraged. Not only were they outraged, but they were terrified. Certainly, and parent of a young child

Page 338 U. S. 913

must have felt a dread at the thought that his or her child might be killed while out upon the thoroughfares of Baltimore City. We think we are justified in drawing the conclusion that there was widespread and compelling public interest in the Brill murder. We think we are justified in assuming that many, many ears were on that evening in Baltimore, glued to their radios. And what happened? Mr. Connelly goes on the air and announces 'Stand by for a sensation.' Now, gentlemen, it is a fair and safe bet that whatever the Hooper rating of his station may be, no listener tuned to his station was going to turn his radio off when he heard that announcement. Mr. Connelly then proceeded to explain that James had been apprehended and that he had been charged with the Brill murder. That was all right. Nobody could quarrel with that, but then he goes on to say that James had confessed to this dastardly crime, that he has a long criminal record, that he went out to the scene with the officers and there reenacted the crime, and further, dug up from somewhere down in the leaves the knife that he had used to murder the little girl. Now, gentlemen, the Court has no difficulty in concluding that the broadcast was devastating. Anybody who heard it would never forget it. The question then before us is: did that broadcast, and others which were less damaging by the other stations, have a clear and present effect upon the administration of justice? The Court is bound to say that we do not believe that those broadcasts had any appreciable effect, to say nothing of constituting a clear and present danger, upon the decision of the Judges who tried the case. At the moment, we do not recall just who those Judges were, but Judges are supposed to be made of sterner stuff than to be influenced by irresponsible statements regarding pending

Page 338 U. S. 914

cases. They are trained to put aside inadmissible evidence, and, while we, of course, recognize our limitations, I think that most Judges, at least, are fairly able to disregard improper influences which may have reached their attention."

"Now, what about the jury? In the first place, what is this jury that we are talking about? They are twelve men, or, in most jurisdictions now, as in Maryland, men and women, who are picked from all walks of life and who have the responsibility of hearing cases and determining, in this State at least, not only the facts, but the law in the case. It may be unfortunate, perhaps, but certainly the fact is that the jury's verdict is final in most cases. There is the limited protection of the accused to apply for a new trial, but the Court of Appeals can not determine -- review and determine -- the propriety of the verdict reached by the jury either on the law or on the facts. Now this jury system is intended, and I think it works out that way, to bring to the trial of a case, as one element, the public opinion in the community. It is true that the jury is sworn to decide the case upon the evidence which it hears from the witness stand, but I think that no experienced lawyer would contend that a jury is not expected to bring to the consideration of its verdict the temperament of the community in which the members of the jury live. The jury is called upon to decide the facts as it hears them from the witness stand in the light of its past experience and, if you please, its past knowledge. True, attempts are made to get jurors who have not been touched with any previous influence in the case, but the safeguards that are provided for the realization of that ideal are all too limited."

"The Court knows no graver responsibility that devolves upon Counsel for the Defense in a serious

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criminal case than the responsibility of advising his client whether to elect a jury trial or a court trial. Counsel must be able to sense public opinion, and he must evaluate the possible effect upon the jurors' minds of those things which they know or think they know. Doubtless all of us have seen cases tried in which we felt that the Counsel made errors of judgment as to how the particular cases ought to be tried. They are, however, doing the best that they can and, as I have indicated, theirs is a grave responsibility, because it is irrevocable. When a jury determines a case, that terminates the case, and if Counsel may have made an unfortunate choice, then his client suffers the consequences."

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