From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 34.
By Paula Canning
Court TV chief anchor and managing editor Fred Graham has covered many trials in his lengthy print and broadcast career. Graham says that at a time when advances in technology should be making electronic coverage of courtrooms much easier, there should be more cameras in courtrooms.
“What’s been happening lately with camera access in courtrooms is very distressing,” said Graham, whose career included reporting assignments for the New York Times and CBS News. “There is this perverse trend where the cases that the public should see because they involve important public issues are just not being shown.”
With trial coverage as the cornerstone of Court TV’s daytime programming, the network has a first-hand account of a growing trend for camera access in its efforts to open courtrooms up to public scrutiny. According to Graham, Court TV sees very different trends on a nationwide basis as opposed to individual cases.
“If you’re looking at the formal actions that are being taken across the country, the trends are definitely good there. Mississippi’s recent decision to open up courtrooms to broadcast coverage is a great example of that,” he said. “On a case-by-case basis, there is a trend of judges in important cases, cases of great public interest, to say that for that very reason that they are not going to allow coverage,” Graham said.
He cited the Washington, D.C.-area sniper cases as examples of how judges attempt to limit access to cases that generate high levels of public interest. Court TV was denied gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings.
“The [Lee Boyd] Malvo case is of significant importance. This case is a major national story and the public should see it unfold. What is at stake here may be a turning point on the issue of whether or not it should be American policy to execute juveniles,” Graham said.
In a number of states, the rules frequently give the presiding trial judge unbridled discretion to limit access.
According to Graham, the judges have been using this discretion to limit access based on speculation that the camera might be harmful to the proceedings.
“What we’re trying to do here is to urge the state judiciary to change the rules, and to do what a number of other states have done, where they adopt a presumption that [camera access] is a good public policy, and that substantial reasoning is necessary to ban cameras,” Graham said. “What the judges are doing here is where the problem lies, and this is what we’re working to change here at Court TV.” (Graham was a founder of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and continues to serve on its steering committee.)
Mississippi Supreme Court opens lower courts to cameras
The Mississippi Supreme Court on April 17 adopted rules permitting broadcast and still camera coverage of trial and appellate court proceedings.
Prior to this move, Mississippi was one of 11 states that barred cameras from trial courtrooms.
Justice James E. Graves Jr., chairman of the Media and the Courts Study Committee, called the new rules “a milestone for the court system” in an April 17 statement. Chief Justice Edwin Pittman created the committee in November 2001, shortly after the state’s high court admitted cameras, to study the possibility of allowing cameras in lower courts as well.
The committee, including eight judges and two journalists, conducted an extensive study on the relationships between the courts and the news media. In December 2002, the committee submitted its findings, recommending that the court extend camera coverage of proceedings.
“It’s a step in the right direction in terms of informing the public about the justice system. It brings Mississippi in line with the majority of the other states, which allow camera access to courtrooms,” Graves said.
Effective July 1, the rules apply to the Mississippi Supreme Court of Appeals, chancery courts, circuit courts and county courts. Camera coverage remains prohibited from juvenile and municipal courts.
“This will allow the courts of record to develop the use of cameras in the courtroom. Once we prove the success of the new and additional media coverage, we will extend it to the justice and municipal courts,” Pittman said.
The new rules grant the presiding judge discretion to ban cameras at any time throughout the proceedings.
The Radio-Television News Directors Association, which has supported efforts to get cameras in Mississippi courtrooms, applauded the court’s decision.
“It’s always encouraging to see courtrooms opened to broadcast journalists. Citizens in a democracy have the right to see justice carried out first-hand, and electronic coverage of court proceedings is an effective means of ensuring that right,” RTNDA President Barbara Cochran said in an April 21 statement.
Nevada court plans to broadcast proceedings on the Internet
Henderson Municipal Court Judge John Provost plans to broadcast his courtroom proceedings over the Internet in a first-time experiment for the state of Nevada.
Broadcasting was expected to begin in early April, but has been delayed.
“We haven’t started up the project yet, but it still looks really hopeful,” court administrator David Hayward said.
The goal is to provide people with a better understanding of the judicial process, Hayward said. “It’s an educational opportunity for the general public.” Internet broadcasting would be more convenient for the public and more cost effective, Hayward said.
“We have a lot of people who come in and observe courtroom proceedings. With Internet broadcasting, people would have the opportunity to log on and view the proceedings, rather than having to travel to the courtroom,” he said.
Hayward hopes to model the broadcasts after those of the Delaware Municipal Court in Ohio, which has been broadcasting courtroom deliberations over the Internet since 1999.
“Broadcasts have been successful and popular with the public,” Delaware municipal court administrator Lynn Hawbaker said. “It helps out those who wish to know and understand how the courtroom functions.”
The South Dakota Supreme Court has been broadcasting proceedings over the Internet since October of 2002, according to director of public information Jill Jusso.
Prior to instituting the broadcasting in October 2002, the court performed trial hearings to ensure that the proceedings were being recorded properly, Jusso said.
“Since then, we haven’t had any problems and the response from the public has been positive,” Jusso said. “It’s been a great success.”
Judge denies gavel-to-gavel coverage of Robert Durst trial
In response to a request made by Court TV, Galveston County, Texas, district Judge Susan Criss ruled against gavel-to-gavel camera coverage of the murder trial of Robert Durst, but she said that one still camera will
be allowed throughout the trial.
Durst, who is heir to a multimillion dollar real estate fortune, is on trial for the January 2002 murder of his neighbor, 71-year-old Morris Black, whose dismembered body was found in garbage bags in Galveston Bay.
“The court has considered the First Amendment right of the public and the press and weighed those rights against [Durst’s] Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial,” Criss wrote.
Criss’ March 31 decision allows live pool camera coverage of her reading of the formal charges, the closing arguments and return of the verdict.
Court TV attorney John Edwards said, “It’s become evident from the Andrea Yates case to the Clara Harris trial and to this trial that the courts are fashioning similar orders and limiting [electronic coverage] more narrowly even to still photography. It appears to be a trend that we’re trying our hardest to challenge. It’s not looking good right now.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that Criss gagged attorneys, witnesses and investigators in the case from comments on any aspect of the case, including her ruling about television cameras.
Cameras banned from juvenile murder trial in Kentucky
A judge in Nicholasville, Ky., has refused camera access to the murder trial of 17-year-old Daniel Gordin, accused of the Jan. 5 murder of Ryan Harris. The trial began May 5.
Jessamine County Special Judge James G. Weddle banned all recording equipment, including tape recorders, from the entire courthouse during the proceedings.
Gordin, who is being tried as an adult, could face the death penalty upon conviction. Kentucky has not executed a juvenile in 57 years.
The case has generated a great deal of public interest, assistant public defender Adam Zeerogian said.
“[Weddle] was most likely thinking that it would be very difficult to get a fair trial with all the publicity surrounding the case,” Zeerogian said.
Supreme Court releases audio tape of affirmative action arguments
For only the second time in history, the U.S. Supreme Court on April 1 released audio tapes immediately following arguments, this time in a case concerning the legality of affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan.
The audio tapes were released in response to requests made by C-SPAN, according to Supreme Court public information officer Kathleen Arberg.
The first time the procedure was used was in the release of the Bush v. Gore arguments in 2000. Typically, the tapes are given to the National Archives and then made available several months after the court sessions are over, Arberg said.
The audio tapes were accessible through a network pool, which offered an offsite feed to its member news organizations, and though an onsite feed accessible to nonmember news organizations. Members of the press with congressional credentials were allowed to review the tapes in the House and Senate Radio and Television Galleries at the U.S. Capitol.
“It was an exception to the general policy. The decision came in response to intense public interest,” Arberg said.
Many see the broadcasting of the oral arguments as offering “a glimmer of hope” for the crusade to get cameras in the federal courtrooms, said vice president and general counsel for C-SPAN Bruce Collins at an April 30 forum in Arlington, Va.
“But nothing is going to change until the individual justices decide. My experience tells me it’s going to be a long time,” Collins said.
Tim O’Brien, a correspondent for CNN, is more optimistic.
Many Supreme Court justices are in favor of cameras in the courtroom, O’Brien said during the April 30 forum, but are reluctant to express their support because of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s strong opposition to camera access.
“I think that once there’s a new Chief Justice, everything will change,” O’Brien said.
“Arguments for cameras in Supreme Court have special force. Most cases that go to the Supreme Court are of high publicity and intense public interest, making for an even greater reason for camera access,” O’Brien said.
North Carolina Judge allows French filmmakers to record hearing, bans media and public
A North Carolina judge banned the public and media from an April 6 preliminary hearing for a murder suspect, but allowed a film company to electronically record the entire session.
Mike Peterson is accused of the December 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen.
Maha Films has been granted permission to record all closed hearings and conversations between Hudson and his attorneys, due
to an arrangement between Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson in Durham, District Attorney Jim Hardin and with Peterson himself.
Filmmakers Denis Poncet, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Allyson Luchak will use the footage for a documentary.
According to The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Hudson said that Maha films orally agreed not to air the footage until the trial is over.
Hudson also told the News & Observer that Maha’s filming will help to educate the public about the judicial process.
Allowing the judge to exercise discretion to ban certain media is a form of discrimination, said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, a First Amendment advocacy organization.
“I think that it is true that the judge should be able to have discretion to make the decision on whether or not to allow cameras in the courtroom. However, I don’t think those rules allow discretion to essentially discriminate against different media,” Martin said.
“I am especially troubled by it because it is not memorialized that there is any type of written explanation from the judge, which would have allowed for the public to evaluate the judge’s decision,” Martin said.
Cameras barred from courtroom in sniper suspect trial
A Virginia judge on March 4 denied media requests for electronic and still camera coverage of 18-year-old sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo’s trial.
Fairfax County Judge Jane Marum Roush will permit a closed-circuit feed, which will allow the media to watch the trial from an overflow room.
The judge expressed concern that the additional media coverage would compromise the defendant’s right to a fair trial, according to a statement by the RTNDA, which led the media’s petition for cameras in the courtroom.
“We are disappointed in Judge Roush’s decision,” RTNDA president Barbara Cochran said. “We are holding out hope that she would give area citizens a chance to see justice carried out in this important case. The people of Washington, Maryland and Virginia were personally affected by the sniper shootings and deserve to see firsthand how justice is served.”
On Jan. 30, RTNDA petitioned the court to allow audio-visual and radio coverage of the trial from an unobtrusive location in the courtroom. RTNDA was joined in their efforts by 15 media organizations, including the Reporters Commitee.
“There is a significant need for recording and telecast of these proceedings, because the physical confines of the courtroom and the importance of preserving order and decorum in the courtroom necessarily limit attendance,” wrote RTNDA in its petition. “Without electronic coverage, the public will not be able to witness first-hand the orderly administration of justice in a case of keen interest and importance.”
Malvo is on trial for the Oct. 14, 2002, murder of Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst who was shot inside the parking garage of a Home Depot in Falls Church.