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Courtroom ban on sketch artists rejected by federal judge

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KANSAS   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct. 28, 2005

Courtroom ban on sketch artists rejected by federal judge

  • A sketch artist with a Wichita television station will be allowed in a trial court after all artists were initially banned by a judge who cited privacy concerns of jurors and witnesses, some of whom are mentally disabled.

Oct. 28, 2005  ·   A Wichita television station has won a federal court ruling that allows one sketch artist from the station to cover a criminal trial in U.S. District Court. The Oct. 17 ruling permits only KWCH-TV to send one sketch artist into the trial under certain restrictions as to what may be sketched.

The station initially went to court in early October after being notified of the ban on sketch artists by the U.S. attorney’s office, which created the ban due to privacy concerns for victims of alleged sexual misconduct who would be shown in videos to the jury. The U.S. District Court in Wichita cited the U.S. Crime Victim’s Rights Act in directing that the graphic detail on the tapes required that they be shown on a screen visible only to the jury, court and parties involved, but not to anyone seated in the gallery.

The court ruled that the station could allow one sketch artist into the trial with the understanding that jurors or victims would not be drawn, and that during each victim’s appearance, no sketch materials would be visible in the courtroom.

“There can be no doubt that allowing the press to report on the trial is critical to keeping the public informed,” U.S. District Judge Monti L. Belot wrote for the court. “However, unlike the written or spoken word, sketches of courtroom proceedings do little, if anything, to inform the public about the course of the trial. It conveys nothing about the allegations, the testimony, or other non-testimonial evidence received in the case.”

In a motion to intervene in the case, lawyers for the station argued that criminal trials can only be closed if a compelling reason to do so is cited and if the judge made specific findings that state why the closure is necessary.

“Because the press and public were afforded no notice or an opportunity to be heard regarding restricting of access to the criminal trial by sketch artists, it is impossible to determine whether any of those requirements were met,” said Bernie Rhodes, a First Amendment lawyer from Kansas City, Mo., in an interview with The Wichita Eagle.

The defendants, Arlan and Linda Kaufman, are now in their third week of trial on 34 charges, including Medicare fraud, civil rights violations, and subjecting victims to involuntary servitude.

In KWCH’s filing, Rhodes cited a ruling by former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren about how sketch pads were less obtrusive than cameras, which are not allowed in federal district courts, The Eagle reported.

“Sketching requires only a writing instrument and a sketch pad, and can be done quite unobtrusively, or even . . . from memory completely outside the courthouse,” Warren wrote.

Outside of restricting public viewing of the graphic videos and the testimony of certain victims in the case, the Kansas court has not otherwise closed the proceedings to the public. Both the media and the general public have the opportunity to attend the proceedings, outside of those certain exceptions.

The court expressed concerns that mentally ill witnesses would be dissuaded from testifying, because of their possible anxiety and distress of being recorded or having their likeness replicated.

“The victim undoubtedly would not only face considerable additional distress and loss of dignity [if their pictures were shown], but the individual might not even be able to testify, thereby damaging the truth seeking function of a criminal trial,” Belot wrote.

An employee of the station said KWCH hopes to get a sketch artist in to the trial by the week of Oct. 31.

(United States v. Kaufman; Intervenor’s Counsel: Bernie Rhodes, Kansas City, Mo.)KT

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