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Could a 'tweet' deprive a defendant of a fair trial?

Much has been said this year about President Trump’s propensity to speak his mind, particularly through Twitter. His tweets have been fodder for controversy on things he likes (i.e. support for certain political candidates, his political relationship with China) as well as things that frustrate him (NFL player protests, disaster relief in Puerto Rico).

For as influential a sitting president may be, there are growing concerns that his tweets on current criminal cases may put defendants in untenable positions when it comes to getting a fair trial. Essentially, there are fears that such tweets could affect the social conscience of judges and potential jurors before evidence is presented in a court of law. 

Two examples of recent tweets include his preference that the defendant behind the recent attack in New York be given the death penalty, and the tweet about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being described as a “dirty rotten traitor” who should receive the same punishment.

Indeed, having sitting presidents commenting on current criminal issues is not new. But in the age of social media, such opinions come quicker and unfiltered, and have the potential of influencing a larger audience.

Nevertheless, the concerns about the president’s tweets illuminates a larger issue: can social media comments deprive a criminal defendant of a fair trial? It is a reasonable question given the mechanics around the concerns regarding the president’s pulpit. Basically, the elements are very similar: unfiltered opinions on a controversial event that are broadcast to a large audience. This may have the unintended consequence of tainting opinions of those charged with giving a criminal defendant a fair trial. 

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