The local media were in the spotlight Wednesday morning at the latest hearing in the case against Metro Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke. His attorneys say “pervasive” coverage of last summer’s police-involved shooting has “poisoned the well” of potential jurors.
In a hearing that lasted more than four hours, the defense argued that widespread publicity about the incident will make it difficult to find 16 impartial jurors in Davidson County.
“The proof in this case is that an overwhelming number of people think this man is already guilty. And that’s why I’m standing here,” defense attorney David Raybin said during close statements. “I don’t want to have to ferret them out. His presumption of innocence is too dear and precious to go in there with a bunch of people that have got that preconception.”
Delke’s team hired social psychologist Bryan Edelman, who studies the impact of pretrial publicity on potential jurors, to serve as an expert witness. Edelman found that at least 161 print articles alone have been written about the case since last July. Such extensive coverage, he said, “directly undermines all Defendant’s fair trial rights.”
In a survey of Davidson County residents, Edelman found that about two thirds of respondents were familiar with the case. And almost three quarters of those who knew about it had watched surveillance footage that shows Delke shooting Daniel Hambrick, which the district attorney’s office released to the public about two weeks after the fact.
In total, the defense estimates videos of the shooting have been viewed between 670,000 and 680,000 times.
Such widespread circulation of the footage — often viewed within the context of a news story — could make it difficult for Delke’s attorney’s to convince jurors that the video portrays Delke shooting Hambrick in self defense, Edelman said.
“There’s often editorial comment about what the video shows,” he said. “So people are reading this. You know, it’s not in a courtroom. There’s no cross-examination. There’s no rules of evidence. And it’s creating an attitude or impression of what the video shows before they’ve seen it.”
Edelman also mentioned several other common themes he noticed in news coverage about the case, which he said could have impacted potential jurors’ ability to be fair and impartial.
For instance, Edelman highlighted repeated references to allegations of racism in the Metro Nashville Police Department. Such language, he said, could create in-group bias, which can cause potential jurors to empathize more with their own race. His survey revealed that 91% of black respondents thought that Delke was not in danger of losing his life when he fired the fatal shot at Hambrick, compared to just 36% of white respondents.
Edelman also referenced stories that drew connections between Hambrick’s death and a successful vote last fall to establish a civilian oversight board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
In his closing statement, defense attorney David Raybin noted that 4,000 people signed a petition to put the measure on the ballot in the week after Hambrick was shot — doubling the number of signatures just before the deadline.
“I suggest that many Nashvillians have already functionally voted on Officer Andrew Delke,” he said. “What are you going to do when we put the jurors in the box and there’s 8,000 people who signed that petition? Do I get to challenge for cause any of them that get up on that box?”
Raybin didn’t fault the local media for covering the case.
“Under our system, there should be no restraint on the press. We live in a free society, and the press is doing its job,” he said. “But the way to balance the freedom of press with the rights of the defendant is to grant the change of venue.”
The best solution, Raybin said, would be to bring in jurors from another county. Tennessee law allows the court to do so “when a fair trial is unlikely because of undue excitement against the defendant.”
The defense did not mention, however, an ad campaign sponsored by the Andrew Jackson Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, which has also played a role in the narrative surrounding the case. In the video, a man shoots a melon with the same type of handgun Hambrick was allegedly holding when Delke shot him.
“It is the same type of handgun that I carried in three tours in Iraq,” he says. “It is extremely destructive.”
Prosecutors say they can seat an impartial jury here in Nashville through careful questioning during jury selection. Given that one third of the 400 local residents surveyed by the defense weren’t familiar with the case, Assistant District Attorney Roger Moore argued that at least 100 people would qualify for jury selection.
“There are some people, very, very well-educated across the spectrum, who choose not to read or hear about the crimes that occur in their community,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with that, and that does not disqualify them.”
Joy Kimbrough, the attorney representing Hambrick’s family in a civil suit, agreed.
“To say that we cannot depend on, or we cannot trust the jurors in Davidson County, it’s a slap in the face,” she said after the proceedings.
The judge presiding over the case expects to make a decision in the next two weeks.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.