Each criminal case ends with a court ruling, which determines whether or not the accused has committed a crime. The ruling can be either an acquittal or a conviction. The accused and the prosecution (with or without the consent of the victim) can also sign a plea-bargaining agreement. It usually leads to lighter punishment in return for the accused person pleading guilty.

Depending on whether the court ruling is appealed (by the defendant or the prosecutor) the final outcome of the case may become clear after a long time. During that time, the media interest in reporting on the case usually decreases and is not as intensive as during the earlier stages of the process when many details are still unknown. Objective coverage of the case requires that its final outcome is properly reported, especially if earlier stages have been extensively covered and the defendant is acquitted. The public should be equally informed about the beginning and the end of the proceedings.

Access to information

Final court decisions are usually published. It is a good practice for the court to proactively disseminate information on acquittal in order to restore the accused person’s potentially harmed public image. After the final judgement, the media may require access to the court file. Unless restricted by national rules, granting such access is admissible with the respective deletion of personal data.

The press release proactively informs about the final court decision. All information provided is proven during the trial and therefore admissible to publish.

Trader Indicted for Commodities Insider Trading Scheme

A federal grand jury in Houston returned an indictment on Dec. 7 charging a natural gas trader for an insider trading scheme involving natural gas futures.

According to court documents, Daniel Stones, 41, of Garnet Valley, worked as a natural gas trader for his own company, Stones Trade Capital. Stones conspired with others to misappropriate material, non-public information and to engage in fraudulent, non-competitive trades, including prearranged trades, in natural gas futures contracts for their own personal gain. Stones and his co-conspirators caused prices to be reported, recorded, and registered on designated commodities markets that were not true, bona fide prices. The profits from these fraudulent trades were split among Stones and his co-conspirators.

Feature stories

When the case is over, the media may want to tell about it in a feature story – a longer format for a broader audience aimed to contribute to a public debate. Journalists may ask you to share your view on the investigation or the trial. This is generally admissible once a final court decision is delivered. However, you should be careful not to mention or disclose personal details about third persons such as the convicted person’s family, especially their children, friends or colleagues. Such persons may have been involved in the proceedings (for example, as witnesses), but their right to privacy should not be harmed when revealing details of the case. You should also refrain from mentioning facts from the personal life of the convicted person, which are not related to the crime or the proceedings. Many such facts are usually revealed during the proceedings, but unless they are directly linked to the case (for example, explaining the person’s motivation to commit the crime), they should not be discussed.

Case reconstruction

You can be asked to contribute to the production of more extensive materials about the case, such as books, documentaries, podcasts or even movies. Once the case is closed, this is generally admissible. However, be careful not to share information or express views that may disproportionately affect the private life of the convicted person or third parties. Before agreeing to participate, it is advisable to check who the authors of the future material are, whether they have the necessary permissions if such are required, and through which channels the material will be distributed. You can also consult your superiors or the media officer at your institution, if available. This can help avoid the risk of appearing in material from questionable sources or becoming the subject of infringement lawsuits.

The Real Manhunter

A British TV channel launched a four-part real-life story series based on the diaries of a retired London Detective Chief Inspector known for successfully leading about 30 murder investigations. Within the series the detective reconstructs the investigation from his own perspective, starting from the moment the police first visited the crime scene. The officer brings out insights about how the police linked clues and evidence, leads the viewers through key locations and people until the suspect is identified and arrested. Later on, the detective explains the behaviour of the suspect during questionings and the techniques applied by the police to obtain more information from them. 

Although the series discuss closed cases, in the course of the episodes and during the accompanying media interviews, the officer allows himself to comment on the suspects’ private lives, for example, their relationship with their mother.

Access to information

Courts usually publish information about decisions on criminal cases. They also often proactively provide the media with information – via press releases or press conferences – on high-profile cases. The court’s final decision is usually a public document which can be either republished or freely referred to. The final court hearing can be attended by the media within the rules applicable for the trial phase.

The principle of proportionality

It is quite common for the interest in criminal cases to be high at the beginning of the proceedings and gradually decrease with the approach of the final judgements. It is a natural process of exhausting the public’s attention as the case uncovers and most details are revealed. It is a matter of fair treatment that the information about the final decision on the suspect’s guilt be proportionately disseminated compared to the amount of coverage about the same person in the beginning and during the proceedings. Research suggests that the media coverage of court decisions is often limited to a small share of high-profile cases where the rationale for sentencing is not explained well enough. This results into a critical attitude towards courts. At this point, it is a good practice to publish feature articles or shows to be aired as the entire story can be told. Moreover, a number of involved people, including public officials, will not be bound by the secrecy of investigation as during previous stages.

Removing already published information

You might be approached by individuals, as ex-defendants, with requests for deletion of information you have published. Such requests often concern archived articles about arrests, court cases or other news from long ago placing these persons in unflattering situation. Upon such request, you should review the published information concerning these individuals. Acquitted or sentenced people might require to exercise their right to be forgotten – a right granted by the General Data Protection Regulation which allows for a person to have their personal data erased and no longer processed when the data are no longer necessary to serve the purposes for which they were collected or published. Therefore, you should carefully consider the person’s interest in concealing the content versus the public’s interest in knowing it at the present moment. Regardless of your decision to remove or not the published content, it is advisable to update the original article and follow up with a new one that informs about the new developments related to the case discussed. 

Also, always bear in mind that a judgement of ‘not guilty’ can open up space for people accused in committing a crime to seek compensation for damaging their reputation in earlier phases.

ECtHR confirms Germany’s rejection of the right to be forgotten on old murder case

In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed Germany’s decision to deny two individuals their requests to remove from press archives information about a murder reported back in 1991. The two individuals were convicted for murdering a well-known German actor. After their release from prison, they brought actions against several German media outlets requesting coverage of the 1991 murder be removed from their online archives. The German Supreme Court decided in favour of the public’s right to access this information. Within the ensuing challenge before the European Court of Human Rights, the right to privacy under Article 8 had to be balanced against freedom of expression and freedom to access information under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court decision said that internet archives preserve news and information while the search engines amplify these news’ effect. In that light, decision might have been different if it had to be applied against search engine rather than on media publications. 

In addition, the high public interest in the case (involving prominent actor) and the proactive search of publicity by claimants at the time of the publications were among the main factors urging the German court to reject the data deletion claim.

Judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, Fifth Section, case of M.L. and W.W. v. Germany, Application nos. 60798/10 and 65599/10, 28 June 2018 (Arrêt de la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme, cinquième section, affaire M.L. et W.W. c. Allemagne, requêtes nos 60798/10 et 65599/10, rendu le 28 juin 2018).