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Cameras largely banned from Bryant trial

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Cameras largely banned from Bryant trial

  • The judge in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault trial has allowed one still camera for opening and closing arguments, and two broadcast cameras for closing arguments.

Aug. 25, 2004 — Cameras will be barred from the courtroom throughout much of Kobe Bryant’s upcoming sexual assault trial, Judge Terry Ruckriegle of District Court in Eagle, Colo., ruled yesterday.

A coalition of media groups filed a motion for “expanded media coverage,” specifically still camera coverage, of the entire trial. Court TV filed a separate motion for the right to broadcast the high-profile trial in its entirety. Jury selection is scheduled to begin this Friday.

The two motions were consolidated and, for the most part, largely denied by Ruckriegle. One still camera will be allowed to photograph opening and closing arguments, while two broadcast cameras will be allowed to videotape only the closing arguments, he held.

Ruckriegle’s primary rationale for refusing to allow camera access throughout the trial was his presumption that it would have a negative impact on witnesses and their testimony. “A variety of persons will be called upon to provide unusually graphic testimony, which is also of a most intensely personal nature,” he wrote. “The court concludes that broadcasting this testimony ‘live’ to an international community would unduly detract from the solemnity, decorum and dignity of the court.”

Bryant, 26, is charged with raping a 19-year-old clerk at a spa in Edwards, Colo., in June 2003. Bryant, who is married, says they had consensual sex.

The prosecution, defense and the 19-year-old woman were all opposed to allowing camera access to the upcoming trial.

Ruckriegle’s ruling largely focused on the potential impact television broadcasting would have on the trial. He said there was a “reasonable likelihood” that filming of witness testimony by Court TV “would compromise the fair trial rights of the participants.”

Attorney Steven Zansberg, who represented the print media group — including The Denver Post and The Associated Press — called the decision “a mixed ruling.” If Ruckriegle’s primary concern is shielding young witnesses from the subtle glare of a camera, as the ruling states, Zansberg questioned why law enforcement officials and expert witnesses are also shielded.

“The value of TV coverage and still photography is that it allows the public to see actual court proceedings,” Zansberg said. “It serves as a conduit so the public can see firsthand what’s going on in the courtroom. They’re now forced to rely on second-hand accounts.”

Approximately 20 seats are available for the news media in the courtroom; opening arguments have been scheduled for Sept. 7.

In its reply motion seeking still camera access to the entire trial, the news media groups cited various studies that showed jurors and trial participants “are not affected in any meaningful way by the presence of cameras in the courtroom.” Similarly, other studies cited by the media coalition found “that there was virtually no negative impact on courtroom proceedings resulting from electronic media coverage. These state studies concluded that fears about witness distraction, nervousness, distraction or modification of testimony, fear of harm and reluctance to testify with electronic media present were for the most part unfounded,” as reported by Susan Harding in a 1996 law review article, Cameras and the Need for Unrestricted Electronic Media Access to Federal Courtrooms.

The news media have already played a major role throughout the case, battling the court for more than a year over access to evidence, court documents and preliminary hearings. In June, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a prior restraint order issued by Ruckriegle after transcripts of a closed-door hearing were accidentally released to the news media.

Ruckriegle later loosened the order, on the recommendation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, allowing the media to print some aspects of the transcript.

(Colorado v. Bryant; Media Counsel: Steven Zansberg, Faegre & Benson, Denver; Richard Holme (for CourtTV), Davis, Graham & Stubbs, Denver) JL

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