A lot of us may remember Casey Anthony, OJ Simpson, George Zimmerman, and the the recent cases about police misconduct. In each of these cases, the individuals were found not guilty by a jury of their peers or a grand jury. In the American System, we have the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; hence, each of these individuals are more than not guilty, they are innocent in the eyes of the law.

Love it or hate it, we rely on our court system to sort out the facts and make determinations in matters of justice. In each of these cases, the system did not find sufficient evidence to remove the defendant's "innocent" classifications. However, the fact that their names, the allegations, and the trial itself were extensively publicized led to severe post-trial economic, psychological, and (sometime) medical damages to these defendants, due to the "court of public opinion." I have always been particularly appalled by how Un-American and unethical it is to release any details about an ongoing investigation or trial, given that those involved are innocent at that point. Basically, publicizing this information amounts to an egregious form of libel, but the defendant has no recourse.

My question is:

Given that defendants are innocent until a verdict has been issued, how can it be ethical to allow the general public access to, or any knowledge of, the case, given the resulting humiliation, defamation, and possibly harassment of defendants that will likely occur? Regardless of the verdict, public trials met substantial damage to a defendant in many ways. I would like to know what arguments/justifications make this practice ethical? (Obviously, I know its legal).

  • Grand jury proceedings actually are supposed to be secret. But just to be clear: are you asking for arguments in favor of secret trials?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 13, 2014 at 5:44
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    I agree with your sentiment. The American system of "justice" is particularly egregious in its dissemination of information pre- and during trial; "the public has a right to know" is shouted loudly, with the First Amendment as the main argument. "Guilty because there is no smoke without fire" sells more papers than "innocent until proven guilty". In the Netherlands, the accused is known by first name only (which would not help OJ S from LA very much... but Darren W from F is a bit more anonymous). That gives as least a thin layer of protection.
    – Floris
    Dec 13, 2014 at 14:58
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    There are reasons why trials are public by default in the U.S.: it is because guilt in the court of pubic opinion is better than guilt in the Star Chamber. The court of pubic opinion judges harshly because the present confidence of the U.S. in the rightness of the political authority of law enforcement is very high — whereas it was not always so among the politically enfranchised. Dec 13, 2014 at 16:15
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    @Eupraxis1981: not better per se, but the lesser of two evils, when the second evil is that of secret trial with presumption of guilt and no right to see the evidence against you. The U.S. Bill of Rights wasn't written in a vacuum: the rights it enumerates were to repudiate past practises of the British government, in the colonies and in Britain, which the founding fathers considered abhorrent. As the saying goes, daylight is the best disinfectant: the original motivation for public trials were to prevent a certain category of ways that the government could oppress you by judicial means. Dec 15, 2014 at 7:16
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    @Eupraxis1981: I'm not really passionately defending the status quo. I'm saying that some excellent historical reasons contribute to why the system is the way it is. This is not to say that it couldn't be improved, but to simply do away with the 'public' aspect is to risk something worse that publicity was specifically meant to prevent. Dec 16, 2014 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


It could be ethical if the withholding of information could reasonably do more harm to the individual than the sharing of information.

Rumor is a powerful force, especially in the internet era. Without any facts to draw on, it often invents its own facts. This can be more damaging than the unveiling of actual factual evidence during the proceedings.

Consider the recent trial of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. The verdict was innocent, so it fits your argument as a case where it would be unethical to release information. Nearly 5000 pages of documents were released. Because they were released, nobody can question what the Jury did or did not have to work from when making a decision. Anybody can freely decide to themselves whether the jury arrived at a just answer.

Nobody can undo the past, so of course we have to rely on imagination. Can you imagine how the populace would respond if the verdict was "innocent, but we won't tell you why. You have to trust us?"

  • I had a change to read the following piece: newyorker.com/news/news-desk/… and I can see that the argument for "public as a check-and-balance" is quite strong. While I understand that the argument for closed trials has elitist underpinnings, its a shame that our justice system does not leave the innocent unscathed :-\
    – user4634
    Dec 16, 2014 at 17:40
  • Would it have helped if the "[n]early 5000 pages of documents" had been released after the court proceedings had finished? The rumor mill is most active during the trial. Sep 11, 2023 at 16:13

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