The South African Prosecutor in the face of adverse pre-trial publicity
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Pre-trial publicity regarding a pending criminal case, which publicity may be in the form of media coverage of the case or a prior decision given in parallel judicial proceedings arising from substantially the same facts as the criminal matter, may be adverse to an accused. Such media publicity or findings contained in the parallel judicial decision may implicate the accused in the commission of the crime on which he or she is to stand trial. The publicity may, for example, suggest that the accused is "guilty" of the crime charged, or that the accused is of bad character having had the propensity to commit the crime. Conversely, pre-trial publicity may portray the accused as innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. In other words, pre-trial publicity may prejudge the issues that are to be adjudicated on at trial. A central question that may arise in these instances is whether there is a real and substantial risk that such publicity would materially affect or prejudice the impartial adjudication of the criminal case; that is to say, whether the publicity is likely to have a biasing effect on the trial court in the adjudication process or the outcome of the trial, thereby imperilling the constitutional right to a fair trial. Another key consideration, in respect of which there is scant literature and case-law, is the question of the impact which adverse pre-trial publicity may have on the prosecutor in instituting and conducting a prosecution. Being unduly influenced by such publicity, a prosecutor may impinge upon the accused's right to a fair trial. There is also a dearth of authority on how the prosecutor is to function in the face of pre-trial publicity which may be prejudicial to the accused. This article seeks to explore these aspects vis-à-vis the prosecutor. It is posited that in an adversarial criminal justice system the same level of impartiality required of the presiding judicial officer is not required of the prosecutor, and that prosecutorial bias towards the guilt of an accused is inevitable where the prosecutor decides to institute a prosecution after studying the police case docket. Thus, exposure of the prosecutor to virulent pre-trial publicity would not be inimical to the fair disposition of the accused's trial provided that the prosecutor conducts the trial fairly and without undue prejudice to the accused and is dedicated to assisting the court in arriving at the truth. Moreover, additional knowledge and understanding of a case which a prosecutor gains from an extraneous source does not amount to bias or prejudice.
- PER: 2020 Volume 23