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Judges restrict camera access in courtrooms

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From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

In the late summer and early fall, several judges around the country barred or severely limited courtroom camera coverage.

Judges in California exercised their authority to block cameras in the trials of accused child abductors. A New York court confiscated a man’s film and booted him from court when, in an attempt to speak before the court, he illegally filmed part of the criminal trial. Meanwhile the New Hampshire Supreme Court was deciding whether to adopt a new rule that would automatically permit cameras in courtrooms.

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New Hampshire Supreme Court hears arguments against changing court procedure

The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard arguments Oct. 3 from attorneys proposing a change in court procedure for camera access.

Prosecutors and public defenders united to persuade the court that judges should retain their right to refuse cameras, microphones and tape recorders in courtrooms. They argued that cameras can affect testimony and cause distractions to the court, and that the court should continue to disallow them unless a judge decides otherwise.

“The dispute under question,” said public defender Richard Guerriero, “is whether there should be the presumption of the media’s automatic right of access.”

Currently, New Hampshire courts assume that cameras and microphones are not allowed; however, judges have the authority to allow camera access to those who seek it.

The case stemmed from a request made by several media organizations to allow camera access in a hearing of Robert Tulloch, one of the teenagers found guilty of murdering two Dartmouth College professors, Half and Suzanne Zantop.

WMUR-TV, The Boston Globe, and the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters petitioned for access to the trial. (New Hampshire v. Tulloch) The state Supreme Court granted the motion and allowed limited access.

The media organizations then asked the court to decide the broader question of whether camera access automatically should be assumed in New Hampshire courtrooms.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief authored by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, arguing that there should be a presumption that camera access to courts is allowed.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court’s decision is pending.

California judge bars photographer from Westerfield penalty proceedings

A San Diego superior court judge barred all still photography from convicted child killer David Westerfield’s penalty proceedings Aug. 27 because of an alleged violation by The San Diego Union-Tribune photographer Dan Trevan. In February, Westerfield was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam. (California v. Westerfield)

Judge William Mudd ruled that Trevan violated California Court Rule 980, which prohibits the use of images depicting spectators in court proceedings. Trevan, who was working as the pool photographer for print media, was the only still photographer covering the proceedings.

“Judge Mudd did not specify the violation, but it appears he was referring to the photograph of Danielle van Dams’ parents reacting to the guilty verdicts. This photograph appeared on all media,” said Karin Winner, editor of the Union-Tribune.

California Court Rule 980 allows a judge to determine what media coverage will be permitted in court. The rule’s primary purpose is to “ensure that fairness and dignity of the proceedings are not adversely affected.”

“Assessment of California Court Rule 980 was made at the court’s discretion,” said Guylyn Cummins, attorney for Trevan and the Union-Tribune. “Judge Mudd was so angry with Dan that he did not allow any still photographers in court.”

Only Court TV was permitted to remain during the penalty proceedings.

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Judge bans cameras from Runnion hearing

Camera and audio coverage will not be allowed in the Dec. 2 preliminary hearing for Alejandro Avila, the man accused of kidnapping and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. (California v. Avila)

Samantha was abducted July 15 outside her home in Stanton, Calif. Avila pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder.

Orange County Superior Court Judge F.P. Briseno rejected news media arguments for cameras and audio recording equipment in Avila’s pretrial phase, saying extensive coverage might taint the jury pool.

“It is the ruling of the Court that no cameras and no audio will be allowed up to and including the preliminary hearing,” Briseno wrote. The Dec. 2 preliminary hearing will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to try the defendant.

“We were ultimately disappointed with the judge’s ruling,” said Attorney Jean-Paul Jassy, who represents The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register. Allowing cameras in court would be “an unobtrusive way to educate the public,” he said.

“The public has a right to be present in court,” Jassy said. “Cameras allow the public full opportunity to learn what happens.”

Both the Runnion family and Avila’s defense attorneys oppose camera coverage in the proceedings.

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New York man removed from court

A New York man was escorted out of a federal courtroom in Brooklyn June 24 for insisting that he be allowed to videotape part of the criminal trial for Charles Schwarz, the former police officer accused of torturing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Cameras are not allowed in federal trial courts.

Posr A. Posr, a journalist with the public access cable show “Pro Se Views,” shot a minute’s worth of the Abner Louima trial from a seat in the public section of the courtroom with a video camera he illegally brought into court.

After a short recess, Posr stood and asked to address his motion of bringing cameras into the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Reena Raagi informed Posr that cameras were “not permitted anywhere above the first floor” of the courthouse.

She asked him to either check in his video camera or be escorted out by marshals. Posr did not immediately comply with the judge’s requests.

“I have a First Amendment right to be heard, your Honor,” Posr protested.

“This is not the time,” Raagi responded.

Posr wanted to address what he believed to be an invalid criminal procedure rule from 1944. According to Posr, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53, which prohibits the telecast of federal criminal trials, is invalid because it was adopted in violation of a state code.

Raagi rejected Posr’s motion to be heard and instructed marshals to escort Posr out of the courtroom. She told Posr he could return to the court after he checked in his camera.

Posr’s videotape was confiscated at the security check, and he opted not to return to the courtroom.