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Camera access advances in Oklahoma, New York

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From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

News organizations in Oklahoma will be able to broadcast the Oklahoma City bombing pre-trial hearings, while the governor of New York wants to lift the state ban on cameras in the courtroom after the successful coverage of the Amadou Diallo trial.

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Media wins bid for camera access to Nichols hearings

Finding that trial participants act more professionally when a camera is present in the courtroom and that the camera neither detracts from the dignity of the proceedings nor distracts parties and witnesses, a state trial judge ruled on May 8 that he will allow a pool camera to televise the pre-trial hearings for Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry Nichols.

District Judge Robert Murphy Jr. ruled that a canon in the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct that allowed a criminal defendant to refuse to have any portion of his or her trial broadcast violated the state and federal constitutional rights of public access to trials. The issue “is whether the public should be limited to second hand summaries of the news, prejudicial inflammatory characterizations by interested third parties; or whether they will be able to see for themselves what actually transpires in court under the control of the presiding judge,” Murphy wrote.

Nichols, 44, was found guilty of eight counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of eight federal law enforcement officers and one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building following a federal trial in Denver.

Nichols was moved back to Oklahoma City on Jan. 31 to stand trial for 160 counts of murder under state law.

Nichols has asked the judge to limit access because the extreme amount of publicity has “stripped him (Nichols) of his constitutional right to a presumption of innocence.”

Court TV and several Oklahoma City television stations, including KFOR, KOCO, KOTV, KUTL and KWTV, filed a motion requesting pool coverage of this summer’s pre-trial hearings. They asked to install a single, silent camera in the courtroom. (Oklahoma v. Nichols)

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Gov. Pataki moves to allow cameras in state courts

Pleased with New York City TV stations’ and Court TV’s coverage of court proceedings during the trial of four policemen in the killing of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, Gov. George Pataki is moving for greater coverage in courtrooms across the state.

In a statement made March 16, Pataki said that he believes the state legislature should pass a bill allowing cameras in New York’s courtroom for a two-year experimental period, as was done with the Cameras in the Courtroom Law, which expired in June 1997.

“As demonstrated by the recent Diallo trial, appropriate television coverage of courtroom proceedings provides undeniable benefits to the people of our state,” he said. “Cameras in the courtroom provide a window through which we can observe our judicial system in action.”

Pataki said that his proposed legislation would allow for camera access statewide while providing for additional protection for children and abuse victims, whose testimony could not be televised unless the trial judge found that the benefits of television coverage substantially outweighed the risks of allowing such coverage, according to the Associated Press. The governor’s bill would also allow witnesses who were not parties to litigation in criminal and family courts to choose to have their images blurred so as not to be recognized.

According to the AP report, Pataki’s proposed legislation would take effect immediately and continue until 2002, at which time it would be reviewed.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he will work with the governor and the Senate to get the legislation passed.

Pataki has previously said that he favors allowing cameras in state courts, and he and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had both praised the decision to allow cameras to televise the Diallo trial, saying that the public benefitted from seeing the legal arguments instead of having to rely on second-hand documentation of the courtroom events.