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A Content Analysis of James Holmes’ 1st-degree Murder Trial: The
Effects of Pre-Trial Publicity and Trial Publicity on Juror Bias
Benjamin K. Mandile
The authors of The Constitution of the United States of America afforded rights to the
public including: the 1st amendment, which allows for open and robust debate and protects the
right of a free and open press. The creators of The U.S. Constitution also extended the right of a
fair and speedy trial under the 6th amendment, causing a point of contention between two stategiven rights as the media and its coverage of crime becomes more pervasive in society. The
spread of information through the mass media gives the public the ability to learn and create their
own accounts of a crime before and during a trial, despite whether or not the courts find this external information absorbed by jurors, admissible during court proceedings. During the course of
a criminal trial the prosecution and defense both lay out their cases of innocence and guilt, but
what would happen to the outcome of justice if the jury had learned facts outside of the courtroom that the judge ordered inadmissible to the trial? Would the jury be able to put aside these
preconceived opinions that have already formed in the jurors’ minds? Understanding the effects
of media coverage on jury bias can help journalists, publishers, and jurors be more critical of the
information they are consuming and disseminating and the potential detrimental effects it can
have on personal bias towards defendants and the prosecution. Understanding the effects of media coverage on juror bias is critical to understanding the relationship between the law and the
media industry and how the media can influence what happens in the field of law.
This inquiry seeks to determine the effects of media coverage on juror bias before and
during a trial (pre-trial and court coverage). Using the Aurora theatre shooting trial (James
Holmes) as a case study this study seeks to analyze the language used in the news coverage to
discuss its potential impact on jurors in Holmes’ trial through a content analysis of evidentiary
breaches, negative press, sensational news coverage, and unrelated information. It takes a look at
a four-year span of news coverage to find how common each of these variables of juror bias effect are in The Denver Post’s coverage of the Aurora shooter case. Prior research of pre-trial and
trial publicity effects on juror bias lead the researcher to expect that in the Aurora theatre shooting trial pre-trial and trial publicity could have an effect on jurors’ bias.
A History of Juror Bias Studies
Shirin Bakhshay and Craig Haney have considered the impact of pre-trial publicity on the
decisions of jurors and judges make, during an analysis of capital cases in The Media’s Impact on
the right to a fair trial: A content analysis of pretrial publicity in capital cases (2018). They
found that the more exposure a juror had before a trial began the more bias they held during the
trial (2018). This may be in part due to the copy being read – more sensational news stories, both
broadcast and print, are more easy to recount Bakhshay and Haney found during their analysis
This has also been found in court cases, some of which received a change of venue to a
county where the coverage is not experienced or at least not as pervasive. Corona v. Superior
Court (1972), which Bakhshay and Haney cite during their analysis said “…some courts will
still grant a change of venue motion, noting that a fair trial is practically unattainable when the
jury panel has been bathed in streams of circumstantial incrimination flowing from the news media”. Bakhshay and Haney’s work illustrates the impact media coverage has on juror bias and
gives one potential remedy for alleviating these issues. It has also been found the culpability and
credibility perceptions of defendants change once a jury pool has become tainted with inadmissi-
ble information (Bakhshay Haney 2018); in other words, the more PTP seen by jurors the more
guilt and dishonesty is perceived in the defendant.
Bakhshay and Haney’s research focuses on capital cases exclusively and analyzes a
dataset of 20 cases adjudicated in the California Penal System between 1979 to 2005. This analysis looked at the impacts on juror bias in determining whether to sentence a defendant to life
without parole, the death penalty, or acquit the accused along with how often a change of venue
occurred. A change of venue can be granted in the State of California to alleviate juror bias
stemming from media coverage. This focused study cannot be viewed necessarily on a national
scale but gives a glimpse into the effects of media coverage of trials specific to capital cases.
Similar results have been found in understanding media coverage and guilt attribution in
Richard A. Shaffer’s suggestive analysis of guilt he conducted through a five-survey study. Shaffer finds that as the number of news articles written increases, the level of guilt jurors attribute to
defendants increases; this relationship is affected by the number of front page news articles published in a two-month period before a trial (Shaffer 1986).
Shaffer used surveys contracted for five real court cases involving murder and analyzed
the responses to these surveys by potential juror members of these cases who were called during
a three-day period before the trials. Since Shaffer found these results in the mid-1980’s and used
surveys from trials occurring in the 1970’s one must be careful to attribute these findings to
modern court cases. The media coverage has increased with the advent of longer broadcasting in
the 24-hour news cycle so it is important to understand any potential changes in the number of
news stories produced for these cases and the impacts they have on potential jurors. In Bakhshay
Haney (2018) the cases covered a timespan between 1979 through 2005 encompassing a span of
26 years of potential changes in news coverage.
Not all bias can be attributed to malice intent – some jurors fail to remain unbiased despite what some may call good intentions. An article in the Roger Williams Law Review by Kate
Early found that some juror bias can be categorized as an “inadvertent bias” or an unintentional
bias (Early 2011). After jury pools have been exposed to pretrial publicity (PTP) jurors are more
than likely going to believe the prosecution’s case and attribute less credibility to the defendant
(Early 2011). While research has shown that a tainted juror does not put aside their biases, it also
found jurors can mistake information shared during court, for information learned through the
publicity (Early 2011). Related findings were also found in Ruva et. al 2006 where researchers
found that jurors can misattribute media information for information heard during court proceedings. Early’s work relates to the inquiry of jury bias influenced by media coverage but instead
focuses more on the affects of media on a “indigent capital murder defendant’s due process right
to a jury consultant”, also the subtitle of Early’s paper; which touches on jury bias but does not
focus on this exclusively.
These findings of mis-sourcing information and inadvertent biases of the jury pool permeate the literature including a query into the effects of PTP and jury deliberation where it was
also found to have serious implications in Ruva et al 2006, including disadvantaging the defense
by causing an overwhelming bias towards the prosecution. Ruva found jurors who are tainted
with pre-trial publicity are more likely to vote a defendant guilty than their non-exposed counterparts (Ruva et al 2006) and are more likely to attribute higher guilt ratings in addition to suggesting harsher sentencing than their non-exposed counter parts. Ruva et al 2006 found that there is a
possibility of a juror holding negative impressions of a defendant through confirmation bias. The
juror has already been exposed to coverage of the case and by sitting on the jury the juror seeks
information to evaluate that supports their preconceived notions of the defendant (Ruva et al
2006). This falls in line with the other literature that has found jurors hold bias from PTP, but
fails to determine how much bias a juror holds. In the eyes of the court a juror can be found to be
unbiased if the juror tells the court they can remain unbiased (Ruva et al 2006), which leaves a
glaring critique to be had about the efficacy of pre-trial bias questions (voir dire) to curb juror
Bias stemming from pre-trial media coverage has also been found to be more of an influence if the crime affects one community more than the others as seen with the Enron scandal of
2002 (Mayo 2010). PTP allows the community to form conclusions it has from a media filtered1
understanding of a crime and its associated defendant but Mayo (2010) claims this can be optimal for an effective and just jury. Jurors who are informed and local constitute a type of juror
that the court seeks, finding that eliminating all pre-exposed knowledge is ignorant (Mayo 2010).
There are varying forms of pretrial media including negative coverage and breaches of evidence
and coverage that can impact juror bias (Mayo 2010).
This content analysis looked at forty news articles written by or published in The Denver
Post between 2012 and 2015 – the start and end of James Holmes’ case. These dates were chosen
because July 20, 2012 (the date of the shooting) had a great deal of coverage of which potential
jurors could be exposed to while the end date coincides with the date of James Holme’s sentenc-
1 media filtered: all coverage, has the possibility of holding bias in the writing
ing date. The number of cases chosen was determined by the time constraint of the project being
15 weeks. Ten articles from each year were chosen at random to allow for a significant sample to
analyze. The articles were chosen from a search of thedenverpost.com (July 20, 2012 - August 7,
2015) by downloading all articles with a title that relates to James Holmes or the Aurora theatre
shooting. The researcher then went through the download list going in order from top to bottom.
Once ten articles from a year were analyzed no more were used in the analysis and were deleted
from the researcher’s download folder.
- instances in news articles that leak evi-
dence to the public that could influence
a juror. (description of the scene or
things found during the investigation)
- instances in coverage that shed a poor
light or tarnishes the reputation of a
subject. This could be unrelated or related stories to the main story.
- coverage that stimulates the readers
imagination in a manner that the original story does not. This can be seen
through juxtaposition or word choice or
content choice (heavily focusing on a
- info about schooling and childhood, de-
scriptions of the scene)
Each article was read through completely and coded for the number of instances of evidentiary breaches, negative press, sensational news, and non-related info found in the article.
These categories were chosen to analyze for potential juror bias due to pre-trial and trial publici-
ty from the researcher’s understanding of the potential biasing impact these could have. Mayo’s
analysis of the Enron case of the early 2000s discusses a number of these categories. The researcher of the Holmes’ case used some of the same categories (evidentiary breaches and negative press) to further the canon of this data. The categories defined above in fig: 1 were defined
by the researcher with influence from previous research including the Enron analysis done by
Mayo in 2010.
Coding was done by reading each downloaded link in a webpage, if an instance of one or
more of the four above categories were found in the article it was added to the running total being kept track in a spreadsheet (for each article there was simply a total number of instances for
After analyzing the coverage of the four-year span the researcher found information in
news articles about the dismissal of jurors in the Aurora shooter trial and the reasoning behind
Findings & Discussion
varying times - varying categories on the rise
Analysis found that the type of instances seen in coverage differed depending on the time
the events were reported and what the content focused on. This means that at times there were
more instances of negative press or less instances of evidentiary breaches depending on publishing year and content of the article. During the coverage of the trial the number of instances found
of unrelated information outnumbered earlier coverage of James Holmes by 209 and 196 in-
stances when compared to articles written and published on the day of the shooting.2 The researcher noticed in the articles written during the trial with high instances of unrelated information (the highest instance in the 40-article analysis is 232 instances of unrelated information in
“Aurora theatre shooting trial, the latest from Day 59” (The Denver Post)), that the information
published heavily focused on the defendant’s childhood and descriptions of the defendant that
painted him both as a loner and stereotypical shooter one might see in a Hollywood movie.
“He’s not a long writer, true?” Brauchler asked.
“That’s definitely true,” Robert said (day 59).
Coverage also includes quotations such as:
“Brauchler asked if he had any knowledge of the, “arsenal your son was amassing in his
apartment in Aurora?”
“He never told us anything about what he was doing,” Robert said. “He never mentioned
anything about what was going on”(day 59).
On the other hand there was also information that could sway jurors to have more
leniency when voting on the defendant’s guilt and sentencing. These included coverage of testimony including descriptions painting Holmes as a smart, hardworking, and caring individual – a
stark contrast to the image conveyed through early descriptions of the crime.
“‘Holmes was a good teammate. He was never a a sore loser, Silva said. We all had the
same goal in mind,’ Silva said of playing defense on the soccer team with Holmes” (The
Testimony mimicking Silva’s permeate trial coverage articles including “Aurora theatre shooting
trial, the latest from Day 58” (Elizabeth Hernandez and Larry Ryckman) and “Aurora theatre
shooting trial, the latest from Day 59” (The Denver Post) describing Holmes and his family, despite many of the witnesses presented on his behalf having not seen Holmes for many years.
Their testimony talked about the defendant’s character which the reporter covering the trial included much of in the published article for that day (day 59).
“Carr said Holmes was not the type of person who wanted to be noticed and did not brag
about being smart, calling him “modest” and “humble.”
Carr said this case was shocking to him and that it was unlike anything he knew about
Holmes” (day 58).
The testimony continues into day 59 of the Aurora theatre shooting trial:
“Holmes was shy. He wouldn’t start conversations with people.
When people spoke to Holmes he would respond. He was always polite.”
“He was a nice guy,” he said.
Holmes was “normal with the kids. He never got mad or frustrated with the kids” (day
Articles discussing the beginning of the Aurora shooting saga have authors that tended to
use more descriptive language in their writing, leading to more sensational news for the defendant than during trial coverage. Two articles published on July 20, 2012 (the day of the shooting)
had high numbers of negative press and sensational language (# of negative press = 203, # of sen-
sational word usage = 14 4 compared with articles published later, including articles published
about the trial that had lower numbers including “Doctor appointed for James Holmes 2nd sanity
exam”5, “Holmes lawyers seek officer’s disciplinary records”6). Articles focusing on the crime
itself tended to have more instances of sensational writing than articles about the trial. Denver
Post reporters including Sara Burnett, Jessica Fender, and Jennifer Brown used the most sensation in their writing according to the researcher’s 40-article analysis. This could have been problematic for Holme’s defense and protection of his 6th amendment rights because as seen in
Bakhshay and Haney (2018), more sensational news coverage is easier to recount.
Headline writing during coverage of the Aurora shooting and its subsequent trial also
proved to be potentially problematic for juror bias. Headlines are written to evoke emotion in the
reader to attract a reader’s click, but word choice in headlines can lead to a biased juror.
Headlines found in the Aurora theatre shooting trial coverage used sensation as seen in
the word choice. Headlines such as “AP Source: Suspect bought ticket to movie” and “Aurora
shooting suspect left apartment ‘booby trapped’, music blaring” focus on aspects of the case that
sensationalize the situation. Both headlines by being sensational could create an impression
about the suspect in the juror’s mind, whether or not it’s intentional. As seen in Early’s piece in
the Roger Williams Law Review, inadvertent bias has been found to seep into the courtroom (Early 2011); and by publishing sensational headlines juror’s are more likely to remember this infor4 https://www.denverpost.com/2012/07/20/12-shot-dead-58-wounded-in-aurora-movie-theater-during-batman-
5 3/11/14 (0,0)
6 6/23/14 (0,0)
mation because of its shock value. These headlines and those bearing similar characteristics hold
the potential to impact juror bias due to pre-trial or early-trial publicity.
Other headlines were potentially problematic because they could paint the defendant and
the defense counsel in a negative light. This has proved problematic historically when studied in
Early 2011; her study reported that jurors exposed to PTP are more likely to believe the prosecutor’s case. Analysis of The Denver Post’s coverage of James Holmes found four7 headlines that
could paint the defendant and or the defense counsel in a negative light due to the word choice.
The first of these headlines focuses on a decision to deny access to evidence to the victims of the
shooting, which could be seen by some as callous or insensitive. Although this decision was
made by the judge, the decision still sheds a poor light on the defendant’s side because Holmes’
6th amendment right is the reasoning for denying access to evidence presented in open court that
victims of the shooting wanted to use in a civil case against Century Theaters (Colorado’s Civil)
– it could be seen by denying evidence to the victims for their civil case the judge violated the
victims’ 7th amendment rights.
“In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the
right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common
Since the victims were denied access to the evidence they were unable to use this in their civil
case. According to reporting from The Denver Post, Reuters, and The Los Angeles Times the
7 Theater shooting victims denied access to evidence, A guide to mental health professionals who saw theater
shooting gunman, Holmes’ lawyers dispute that victims were misled, Murphy: Colorado Muslims wonder if theater
shooter might have been noticed
plaintiff (the theatre shooting victims) lost their case in a jury trial that was resolved in 2016 with
a not liable verdict (Ingold).
Three jurors in the Aurora theatre shooting trial were dismissed by the judge for disobeying court orders to refrain from looking at or discussing coverage and one for failing to declare a
conflict of interest (La Ganga 2015). According to news reports a juror made the judge aware
that another juror (juror 872) had seen and discussed coverage of the case on two separate occasions. While this could show a direct correlation if the juror had remained on the panel, this instance failed to show a direct correlation between PTP and trial publicity of James Holmes’s case
because the juror was dismissed. In addition to juror 872 being dismissed for cause, the two other
jurors who had been known to associate with juror 872 on breaks were also dismissed because
the judge said the phone call juror 872 received could have also negatively biased the other two
jurors. In addition to these three jurors being dismissed for potential media coverage effects, two
other jurors were also dismissed later for other biased reasons8.
This study could not definitively prove that there was a direct correlation between the juror bias in the James Holmes’ trial and the media coverage associated with it. It will be difficult
to find a direct correlation between juror bias and media coverage (PTP and trial coverage) in the
Aurora theatre shooting trial without interviewing the jurors themselves. This could lead to more
defined data, as there is no way of knowing which articles each sitting juror or even which of the
9000 called jurors saw which coverage. Instead this content analysis found a number of instances
found in analysis that could have affected the outcome of the James’ Holmes’s trial. It is also difficult to know if there would have been any solution to juror bias that could have swayed the
verdict to a not guilty verdict because in this case (a mass shooting), the proximity impact on
readers extends nationwide as mass shootings become more and more prevalent. Even in 2012
when this shooting took place, mass shootings and other unjustified killings (police brutality
leading to deaths) were starting to become more prevalent and talked about in the U.S..
During the course of this analysis a number of limitations and places of improvement
were identified by the researcher. One limitation to this study is the small sample size analyzed.
While only ten articles were analyzed for each year there were more articles discussing other information which could potentially bias a juror. If more articles were used, the analysis would be
more robust due to the factor of there being a higher chance of varied content, giving the researcher a wider net of content to analyze.
The categories chosen also proved to be difficult because the researcher failed to account
for other potential categories such as speculation or a category for when one instance could be
categorized as multiple categories (eg: evidentiary breach and negative press). During the analysis the researcher struggled to code certain parts of articles for these reasons, leading to a potential skew of the data due to the researcher having to code these instances in the next most related
category. The researcher did not mark the instances on the articles themselves and only recorded
the instances as numbers on the spreadsheet, leading to a difficult time when reviewing the
analysis for both the current researcher and future researchers.
Results from this study are small-scale due to the design of the study and by redesigning
the study more robust findings could be acquired. For one, this study only focuses on one trial
and only gathers results for juror bias in a murder trial. If varying types of trials were analyzed
the researcher would be able to track juror bias in greater detail by tracking bias trends across the
criminal justice system more systematically. This proves limiting in that these results can only be
applied to this one case and should be viewed with caution when being applied to cases that do
not hold similar characteristics (mass murder and mental health aspects).
Further designs of this study should also include more coders for content analysis to include a wide sample range. The current study only used one coder (the author of this paper)
rather than having a pool of coders to each code all of the sample news articles.
Due to limitations in the method of the current study, a great deal of information could
not be obtained. A future study could extend the number of trials examined and could include a
variety of trials to extend the study to tracking juror bias trends across types of crimes – this
would allow researchers to answer a new question: does the crime have any impact on bias when
presented in the news before the trial?
Ethical Suggestions for Journalists & Editors Covering Crime & Courts
During the course of designing this study the researcher found that the ethical suggestions
for journalists covering crime and courts could not be overlooked or ignored. It is important for
research, even empirical research, to add value to the conversation beyond the data. (These ethical suggestions found here apply mainly to U.S. journalists as news values and practices vary
around the world.)
Journalists and their editors need to be aware of the word choice used and where these
words fall on the page. All four instances analyzed here, (evidentiary breaches, sensational coverage, negative press, and unrelated information) are all aspects of a crime story that prove here
to be potentially ethically problematic. It is not the job of a journalist or an editor to be the court,
but rather keep the court system and juries in check to protect all involved. While some cowboy
journalists may find it appropriate to sway the outcome of justice to “protect the victims” of a
crime, this does not fall in line with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics which
is widely accepted in newsrooms across the United States of America. Journalists and editors
must remain vigilant of how they cover crimes and courts and should head warning to mitigate
the instances of sensational news, negative press, evidentiary breaches, and unrelated information found in the copy. It is also suggested that journalists and editors consider their sources
when covering crime and court and to give fair chance for all the truthful and relevant positions
to be heard not the topic.
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