NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · GEORGIA · Secret Courts · Nov. 15, 2006
Cameras will be allowed in courthouse shooting trial
Nov. 15, 2006 · The judge in a high-profile murder trial in Atlanta has decided that television and still cameras will be allowed to broadcast and photograph the trial of Brian Nichols, who is accused of murdering four people after escaping from courthouse custody.
A manhunt for Nichols garnered intense nationwide media attention in March 2005. While being tried for rape, Nichols escaped from courthouse guards and killed a judge, court reporter and two others.
Defense lawyers asked the court to bar cameras from broadcasting the trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 11, saying that such publicity could have a prejudicial impact on Nichols’ right to a fair trial. They argued that the jury members could be prejudiced by media coverage and told the court they had encountered witnesses who expressed reluctance to testify in court because of the media coverage.
Prosecutors in the case argued that cameras should be allowed. They wrote that the defendant’s actions have had a “widespread effect” on people “spread not only across the country, but around the world.” Permitting television coverage of the trial would allow victims’ family members to see the trial even if they are unable to travel to the courthouse, the prosecution pointed out.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller denied the defendant’s motion and ruled that radio and broadcast cameras will be allowed. However, he did add that the court could adjust the order and attach conditions to commercial broadcast coverage if circumstances warrant. For example, he wrote that “a witness’ valid objection to coverage may be addressed properly at trial.”
The day before the judge issued the order allowing cameras during the trial, Nichols complained that jail officials had not allowed him to properly groom himself before appearing in court.
In response, Fuller informally asked the press not to publish images of Nichols’ unshaven face in a hearing. Fuller also asked the press not to report this request.
“I want to ask a favor,” Fuller said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is not an order. This is a test. . . . My request is that there be no mention of this. If this incident is mentioned I will jot this down in my notes. . . . I will take into account the level of response.”
Thomas Clyde, an attorney representing The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote a letter to the judge expressing concern about the judge’s request.
“Coverage of a court proceeding is not a bargain struck between news organizations and the participants in the judicial proceeding,” Clyde wrote in a letter dated Nov. 8. “The request that the media not report on an event in open court crosses a line that is firmly established by constitutional law.”
Clyde commented on the judge’s action by e-mail, stating, “Over the objection of the defense, Judge Hilton Fuller has permitted still and video photography of every pretrial proceeding in this case and now has issued an order indicating he will also permit it at trial. While we were and are troubled by the limitation on photography of the defendant imposed for the November 8 hearing, it was an isolated incident and not reflective of the judge’s overall effort to protect public access to this case.”
(Georgia v. Nichols, Media Counsel: Thomas Clyde, Dow Lohnes, Atlanta) — CS