FORT WORTH, Texas -- In the year leading to today's trial of Diane Zamora, lawyers on both sides have proclaimed that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the defendant in such a high-profile murder case to receive a fair trial in her hometown.
But the prosecution's attempt to move the trial failed, and the defense has failed in its efforts to corral some of the publicity.
So Zamora's fate will be decided by seven men and five women -- all of whom said they had heard, seen or read of the case.
It's a case that few Texans could have avoided.
The soap-opera story of a Naval Academy midshipman (Zamora) and an Air Force Academy cadet (her fiance, David Graham) allegedly conspiring to kill Graham's one-night lover was perfect fodder for today's tabloid culture.
Hundreds of stories have been written in national newspapers, magazines and the Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers. Crucial information -- including Zamora's and Graham's confessions -- was leaked to the press. Two paperback true-crime books were published, a made-for-TV movie aired, and some of the players involved were paid to appear on television talk and news shows.
Still, Tarrant County Criminal District Judge Joe Drago,who took the unusual step of interviewing 200 potential jurors himself, said today's jury is "publicity-neutral."
But when does such a media barrage inhibit justice? It's a question that is being asked more and more often in this post-O. J. Simpson era of Court TV, which will televise Zamora's trial. It is being raised with regard to the media's coverage of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky imbroglio.
Fort Worth attorney Jack Strickland, who has tried a number of high-profile cases, said anyone who doesn't think the media spotlight affects a trial "is either naive or disingenuous."
"[The media] permeates the whole climate of the trial," he said.
Strickland said this "age of media saturation" makes it impossible to disqualify jurors who have heard about a case. Instead, the best that lawyers can hope for is jurors who set aside personal opinions and render fair verdicts.
Many attorneys take the extra step of hiring jury-selection consultants to help weed out insincere prospective jurors. Zamora's attorney did that last week.
Still, Strickland said a fair verdict isn't always the result.
"I think in the Simpson case, we had a not guilty by reason of celebrity," said Strickland, who once represented an accused murderer acquitted "by reason of immense personal wealth."
In another recent high-profile case -- the conviction of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, whose trial was moved to Denver -- attorneys had different opinions on the level of influence the media exerted.
Joe Hartzler, who prosecuted McVeigh, said the media's influence on potential jurors is overestimated, and that most people remember vague aspects of a particular case, but not enough facts to have formed a solid opinion.
"For most of us, it just doesn't stick to our bones," he said.
"People asked us beforehand, 'How can you possibly get an impartial jury?' But we found that people didn't always remember things and what they did remember, they weren't sure they should believe anyway. It was very revealing for us."
Stephen Jones, who defended McVeigh, disagrees.
"The media has replaced the presumption of innocence with the assumption of guilt. I think you saw that with Tim," he said, adding that the "rush to judgment can be absolutely toxic to the concept of a fair trial."
Jones said many attorneys try harder to use the media to their advantage.
Dan Cogdell, David Graham's attorney, has said: "If you do not make an effort to successfully deal with the media, you are not making an effort to successfully represent your client."
But Hartzler said such efforts are risky, and can lead to a "media frenzy" in which competition to get tidbits of news puts pressure on news organizations to rely on single, unnamed or less-than-reliable sources. That's how the media have been covering the Lewinsky matter, he said.
John Linebarger, Zamora's attorney, said it is that type of atmosphere that led Grand Prairie police, who arrested and charged Zamora, to release her confession to the author of a book about the case. Such tactics can "poison our jury pool," he said.
The media's defense is often: We're just giving the people what they want.
"If all the facts are true, it's a great story about the test of commitment and passion and greed," television's "Inside Edition" spokeswoman Jan Murray told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, explaining her show's interest in the Zamora-Graham case. "All those elements our audience seems to really like."
And starting tomorrow, Court TV -- a benefactor of "the age of media saturation" -- will give its viewers what they want when it begins live coverage of the trial.
"There has been so much press that I don't think people know the true story," said Court TV spokeswoman Lynn Rosenstrach. "I think we'll get great viewer interest."
Pub Date: 2/02/98