Some wins, losses in court-camera efforts
From the Fall 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.
By Kathy Chang
Cameras are being shut out of a North Carolina murder trial and still cameras were almost completely barred from Kobe Bryant’s court proceedings.
But in New Hampshire, new rules are in place that make it more difficult for judges to ban cameras and microphones.
Court TV, meanwhile, continues its push to overturn a 52-year-old ban on video cameras in New York courtrooms.
Cameras are banned in most federal courts. While all states allow cameras in some courts, only 38 allow them in criminal courts. Camera restrictions in many of those states mean that Court TV routinely airs trials in only 16 states.
Judge’s ban keeps woman accused of murdering her husband off TV
Media interest in the trial of a North Carolina woman charged with killing her husband has waned because cameras are banned from the courtroom, say critics of the camera ban.
National networks are not covering the trial of Michelle Theer, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy in the Dec. 17, 2001, shooting of her husband, Air Force Capt. Marty Theer. And local television reporters are challenged by the camera ban.
Superior Court Judge E. Lynn Johnson issued an order Jan. 16 banning cameras for “security reasons.”
Prosecutors say Theer plotted the killing of her husband with John Diamond. Diamond, who was an Army staff sergeant, was convicted in a court-martial in 2001 and is serving a life sentence in a military prison.
During the trial, television reporter Debbie Tanna of News 14 Carolina in Fayetteville said she has used old video to support her stories. “It makes my job difficult because viewers see the same video over and over again,” she told The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. “The evidence being shown in court now is very interesting, and I think it would be of interest to our viewers. People want to see these things, hear the testimony and see the face of the woman who is accused of this crime.”
“In general, we certainly respect the judge’s decisions in this case,” Rob Elmore, news director of WTVD in Durham, N.C., told The Fayetteville Observer. “I feel strongly that courts should be open to cameras so that people in Fayetteville could see justice carried out and see it firsthand.”
“It is lousy television for a TV reporter to stand outside a courtroom and quote things,” John Harris, news director for WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., told the paper.
New rules favor press access to Granite State courts
New Hampshire judges no longer have complete discretion to ban cameras and microphones in their courtrooms. The state Supreme Court set new rules, which took effect Sept. 10, allowing photographing, recording and broadcasting of most court proceedings.
Parties or judges seeking to ban cameras or microphones in courtrooms must show the presence of such equipment would cause harm, such as threatening a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Anyone wishing to close a courtroom to cameras has “the burden of convincing the court, and the court now has obligation of holding a hearing and making factual findings if there is to be closure of the courtroom to the electronic media,” Concord lawyer Jim Bassett told The Associated Press.
Judges can deny requests for closure without a hearing. If a judge grants a hearing, The Associated Press must be notified as well as its member newspapers, radio and television stations.
Cameras largely banned from Kobe Bryant proceedings
Judge Terry Ruckriegle of District Court in Eagle County, Colo., barred cameras from the courtroom throughout much of the pre-trial court proceedings in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.
He also announced that he would bar cameras from the trial, which did not move forward after the victim subsequently told prosecutors she would not testify. Allowing camera access throughout a trial would have negatively impacted witnesses and their testimony, Ruckriegle ruled. There was a “reasonable likelihood” that filming witness testimony by Court TV would have compromised the fair trial rights of the participants, he said.
The only time that cameras were allowed in the Bryant case were in the early proceedings. Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett allowed one video camera and one still camera during Bryant’s first court appearance, a seven-minute hearing on Aug. 6, 2003. Gannett banned still and broadcast cameras from Bryant’s preliminary hearing on Oct. 9, 2003 .
Ruckriegle granted two media outlets — The Associated Press and Court TV — access to Bryant’s first state district court appearance on Nov. 13, 2003.
Court TV appeals case to New York high court
Court TV’s constitutional challenge of New York’s ban on video cameras in trial courts could move to the state’s highest court if Court TV has its way.
After the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a state camera ban in June, Court TV’s lawyer, George F. Carpinello of New York, asked the Court of Appeals to reverse the lower court decision and declare the camera ban unconstitutional.
Section 52 of the New York Civil Rights Law prohibits the “televising, broadcasting or the taking of motion pictures within this state, or proceedings, in which the testimony of witnesses by subpoena or other compulsory processes is or may be taken, conducted by a court, commission, committee, administrative agency or other tribunal in this state.”
The case started three years ago when Court TV sued the state of New York, the governor, the attorney general and the New York County District Attorney in Supreme Court in New York County. Court TV argued that the state constitution and the First Amendment rendered the ban unconstitutional and sought permanent injunctive relief against the law’s enforcement.
Both the trial court and the intermediate appeals court upheld the ban’s constitutionality. If the court declines to take the case by rejecting Carpinello’s request, which he filed in the form of an “appeal of right” letter, he can file a motion for permission to appeal. The court frequently dismisses an appeal of right, but later decides to grant a motion for permission to appeal, he said.
“The issue of cameras in New York courts is a very politically divisive issue in the state of New York,” said Jonathan Sherman, a partner of Carpinello’s in Washington, D.C. The lower court ruled that the political division mandates that the question of whether to permit cameras be left up to the legislature.
“Our point on the appeal is that it is not a sufficient basis to bar judicial review of a claim merely on the basis that it is the subject of intense political dispute,” Sherman said. “Abortion, flag burning, the Patriot Act — these all involve politically divisive issues, but courts have no trouble subjecting them to the scrutiny of constitutional judicial review.”