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Camera coverage allowed in Nichols hearings

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    NMU         OKLAHOMA         Broadcasting         May 8, 2000    

Camera coverage allowed in Nichols hearings

  • The judge who will preside over pre-trial hearings in the Terry Nichols murder trial found that a judicial canon barring camera coverage is unconstitutional.

Finding that trial participants act more professionally when a camera is present in the courtroom and that the camera neither detracts from the dignity of the proceedings nor distracts parties and witnesses, a state trial judge ruled on May 8 that he will allow a pool camera to televise the pre-trial hearings for Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry Nichols.

In a detailed 25-page opinion, Associate District Judge Robert Murphy Jr. ruled that a canon in the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct that allowed a criminal defendant to refuse to have any portion of his or her trial broadcast violated the state and federal constitutions.

“The issue raised . . . is not whether this proceeding will generate publicity,” Murphy wrote. “It already has. The issue . . . is whether the public should be limited to second hand summaries of the news, prejudicial inflammatory characterizations by interested third parties; or whether they will be able to see for themselves what actually transpires in court under the control of the presiding judge.”

Murphy’s opinion described the history of the public’s presumptive constitutional right to attend court proceedings. It examined U.S. Supreme Court and state court jurisprudence, and cites among other decisions the Jan. 2000 ruling of New York trial court judge Joseph Teresi that New York’s ban on cameras in the courtroom was unconstitutional. Teresi’s decision led to the widely-praised broadcasting of the trial of the police officers charged with murdering Amadou Diallo.

Unless the prosecutors or defense attorneys who opposed televising the Nichols’ proceedings successfully appeal Murphy’s ruling, Court TV will be able to place a small camera on a five-foot stationary tripod. The camera needs no additional lighting, swivels silently, and can be operated by remote control.

Murphy’s decision affects access only to pre-trial hearings, culminating in a preliminary hearing in August that will determine if there is enough evidence against Nichols to warrant a trial. At that time, the trial judge will have to determine if broadcasters will be allowed to televise the trial.

The decision is a victory for a coalition of electronic media members who had filed a motion seeking to televise the proceedings. The coalition included Court TV, Scripps Howard Broadcasting, The New York Times, Ohio/Oklahoma Hearts Argyle Television, KOTV, KTUL, and Griffin Television.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio-Television News Directors Association filed letter briefs in support of the motion.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys had opposed the request based on the state judicial conduct canon.

Nichols faces 160 state counts of first-degree murder for the bombing that took place on April 19, 1995.

(Oklahoma v. Nichols; Media Counsel: Robert Nelon, Oklahoma City)

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