What was the influence of the media with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, and Anne Morrow, writer, was kidnapped in 1932, the media's sensational coverage surrounding the trial caused major problems that would challenge the involvement of the press in the court system. This "media event" became known as the "Crime of the Century."

The two major components that allowed for this "media circus" involved the celebrity of the parents as well as the horrific crime—the kidnapping and murder of a baby—became something similar to what was seen in this country during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995.

The Lindbergh family was so popular—symbolic of a new era in American life—drew inordinate attention from the press and public. Reporters hid on the grounds, pretending to be medical personnel so they could collect pictures. "Sightseers" drawn by the avalanche of media coverage flooded the grounds of the Lindbergh estate and may well have destroyed evidence that could have been relevant in the investigation.

(The body of the Lindbergh child was discovered  in the woods near the house, and an arrest was made; the suspect never admitted to the crime, even after being beaten by the police.)

Because of so much media coverage, influence on trial jury is difficult to assess, and questions arose that challenged the right to the media's freedom of speech. Trying to preserve a sense of objectivity for the jury was hard—attempts were made to limit the level of exposure of the jury to the media, but it was nearly impossible. They exposed to newsboys on the streets hawking papers and "merchants" selling "souvenirs."

Thomas Trenchard, the trial judge, instructed the jurors not to read the newspapers, listen to the radio, or talk to anyone about the trial. But each day the jurors had to walk back and forth between the courthouse and the Union Hotel where they were sequestered (isolated from the public). Jurors waded through the crowds where newsboys shouted the latest headlines, hawkers sold miniature "Lindbergh ladders," and people encouraged the jury to "Send Hauptmann to the chair!"

At the close of the trial—after the jury retired—people outside waited for a verdict. Crowds could be heard chanting for the death penalty. One reporter mistakenly conveyed news of a life sentence to his paper, when the verdict was actually a death sentence. The Lindbergh family waited to hear the verdict on the radio. Charles turned it off while listening to the crowd howl in satisfaction; he felt the mob had the mentality of a "lynching crowd."

Because of the negative impact the press had on the trial, laws were changed with regard to the press's presence in courtrooms. Even though there was no way to know how the media's behavior influenced the jury, camera equipment was no longer allowed in courtrooms.

As a result of the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, photographers and cameras were banned in all federal and most state courts.

While Charles A. Lindbergh's accomplishments in aviation heralded a new era, the death of his infant son and the accompanying media madness also ushered in an period that shocked the world and changed courtroom procedures, challenging the limits of free speech in America.

...the penetrating focus of modern communications on "the trial of the century" altered our notions of privacy, free speech, and a fair trial as surely as Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic changed the face of global transportation.