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Journalists’ efforts to roll cameras into courtrooms get mixed results

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From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

By Kevin Capp

Journalists have sought to bring cameras into the courtroom in recent months with few successes.

Court TV, in particular, has urged the courts to let cameras into the trials of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, actor Robert Blake and other criminal defendants. Congress is also considering legislation to allow camera access to federal courts.

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Judge rejects Court TV request for cameras in Moussaoui trial

After a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., rejected Court TV’s request to televise the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui — the so-called 20th hijacker — the cable network decided not to appeal, opting instead to support legislation designed to ease restrictions on cameras in federal courts. Currently all federal courts bar cameras in the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, in upholding the camera ban on Jan. 18, cited security concerns and the possibility that witnesses might be intimidated by having their testimony televised as reasons for denying the network’s motion.

“The inability of every interested person to attend the trial in person or observe it through the surrogate of the media does not raise a question of constitutional proportion,” Brinkema said. “Rather, this is a question of social and political policy best left to the United States Congress and the Judicial Conference of the United States.”

Court TV said concentrating its efforts on supporting congressional measures may do more to open up federal courts to camera coverage than endless appeals.

“Hopefully, Congress will expeditiously approve the legislation now before it, which would provide the necessary discretion and safeguards to all concerned and would allow our nation to witness the proceedings or portions thereof in upcoming trials of worldwide significance,” Henry Schleiff, Court TV’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

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Federal bills would allow cameras

A bill introduced by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), would televise the Moussaoui trial to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Terrorist Victims Courtroom Access Act proposes a closed circuit broadcast of the trial for victims of the terrorist attacks that would be aired in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities.

The bill has yet to receive a committee hearing.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), on the other hand, reintroduced a bill that would give judges the power, if they choose, to permit photography, electronic recording, broadcasting and televising of any federal court proceedings.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 29, making it the only legislation of its kind to go that far. Should it become law, the law would also give jurors and witnesses the option of having their faces and voices obscured.

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Camera access sought at Blake trial

Although Court TV has given up on a court battle for cameras in the Moussaoui case, the network hopes to bring cameras into the California Superior Court in Los Angeles County for the trial of actor Robert Blake, who starred in the Baretta television series in the 1970s. Blake, arrested on April 18 on murder charges of killing his wife Bonny Lee Bakley, pleaded not guilty.

Court TV has yet to file a petition. (California v. Blake)

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New York City allows cameras into judge’s extortion trial

On the state level, New York State Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella decided to televise the trial of a Brooklyn judge accused of bribery. The decision marks the first time in five years that cameras have been permitted in a New York City courtroom.

Judge Victor Barron pleaded not guilty on Feb. 8 to charges stemming from a lawsuit filed by a family injured during an accident with the driver of a rental car. Barron allegedly ordered a lawyer to give him $115,000 in exchange for signing off on the $4.9 million settlement that resulted from the suit.

Because one of the victims was an infant, the settlement had to be approved by a judge.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of the Court Administration, told the New York Post that Colabella wanted the case open to the public in order to maintain the public’s faith in the state’s justice system. (New York v. Barron)

Colabella’s ruling, which breaks with a 50-year-old state statute that bans cameras in the courtroom, is not unique. Since the expiration of an “experimental” law that allowed cameras in New York courtrooms from 1987 to 1997, several New York judges outside New York City have found the statute unconstitutional.

In 2000, Justice Joseph Terisi of Albany, for example, permitted Court TV to cover the Amadou Diallo trial in which four New York City police officers were charged with killing an unarmed man. The trial had been moved to Albany because of the publicity the case received in New York City.

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California judge agrees to let cameras into kidnapping trial

A judge in the Superior Court of California in San Diego County has agreed to permit camera coverage of the trial of a man accused of kidnapping and killing a 7-year-old girl.

David Westerfield, 50, has been charged with murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography in connection with the slaying of Danielle van Dam. The trial was scheduled for May 17.

Judge William Mudd barred cameras from a May 6 pretrial hearing on motions by the defense, citing concerns that potential jurors could be unduly influenced. (California v. Westerfield)

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Cameras roll in Dartmouth hearing after New Hampshire court intervenes

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered camera access to a plea hearing involving the murder of two Dartmouth College professors.

Teen-agers Robert Tulloch and James Parker stabbed to death Half and Suzanne Zantop in the couple’s Hanover home near the Dartmouth campus on Jan. 27, 2000.

Parker, 17, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors to testify against Tulloch. Tulloch, 18, changed his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity to guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Camera access to Tulloch’s April 4 hearing resulted from an emergency order issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Grafton Superior Court Judge Peter Smith had denied the petition of seven news organizations — including The Boston Globe and Court TV — requesting permission to use cameras during Tulloch’s trial, originally scheduled for March 8.

“While it is likely that most, if not all, jurors will not take notice of electronic equipment in the courtroom, petitioners cannot guarantee that some jurors may not be affected by the presence of cameras,” Smith said in his decision, quoted in an Associated Press article.

But the state’s high court lifted Smith’s ban after the media groups’ motion was amended to cover only the plea hearing.

The Union Leader in New Hampshire reported that Judge Smith complained about the high court’s ruling, saying it “abrogated” a Supreme Court decision that gave judges discretion over cameras and tape recorders in courtrooms.

Reporters told The Union Leader that, as a result, Smith created circumstances that made for a less than cordial atmosphere.

Smith reportedly rejected a “pool” that would have allowed at least one photographer and one television cameraman access to the hearing, opting instead for a lottery system.

The judge also denied requests that journalists be allowed to run a cable from the court so that stations could broadcast live.

James Bassett of Orr and Reno, attorney for the media organizations, said the hearing “wasn’t pretty, but it happened.”

The circumstances surrounding the Tulloch hearing raised a number of important issues in New Hampshire regarding media coverage of court proceedings, Bassett said.

Because of this, he said, his clients hope to persuade the state Supreme Court to provide guidance for video and audio recording as well as still photography in courtrooms even though the Dartmouth hearings have come to a close.

“We’ll file asking the Supreme Court not to dismiss the case as moot,” Bassett said. (Media Petition of WBZ-TV in the State of New Hampshire v. Robert Tulloch)