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Question of Jurisdiction Means No Answer for Camera Coverage of Trial

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From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 15.

From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 15.

By Liam Hurley

The fate of an alleged killer, and whether or not justice will be broadcast for all to see, may rest on where his trial will be held.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a 51-year-old sex offender from Minnesota, was charged in December with kidnapping University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. On April 17, the body of the 22-year-old Minnesota native was found. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Because the alleged abduction occurred outside a mall in Grand Forks, N.D., Rodriguez’s March 5 preliminary hearing was held in that state. In February, Judge Lawrence Jahnke of District Court in Grand Forks ruled that one still camera, one video camera and one audio broadcaster could attend all preliminary hearings, and provide “pool” coverage for other media outlets. KVLY-TV in Fargo and North Dakota Public Radio handled the broadcasting, while the Grand Forks Herald took still photographs.

However, because Sjodin’s body was discovered in a ravine outside Crookston, Minn., future court proceedings could proceed beyond any camera’s lens.

Rodriguez will likely be charged with Sjodin’s murder, but because the body was apparently transported across state lines the case may become a federal prosecution. If murder charges are brought against Rodriguez, he could also be tried in Minnesota, where the body was found.

Cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms, and Minnesota law requires that all parties in a trial-level case consent to cameras being in court. North Dakota has a relatively liberal law allowing camera access.

Paul Hannah, a First Amendment attorney in St. Paul, Minn., won an order from the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1981 to experiment with cameras in courtrooms. However, the order was doomed from the start, Hannah said, due to the consent stipulations.

“I could literally count the number of cases where cameras were allowed with one of my hands,” he said. One television camera and one still photographer are allowed in Minnesota appellate court proceedings, but at the discretion of the presiding judge.

The struggle to allow cameras in Minnesota courtrooms could gain some positive publicity from the Rodriguez case, Hannah said, but if a media frenzy ensues such efforts could backfire.

“It seems like a great time to bring back the effort to the Supreme Court,” he said. “It seems as if all of Minnesota can rally around this trial, because the suspect is not a likeable guy. But at the same time you don’t want to convict this guy without even trying him. And the Minnesota Supreme Court is still too conservative and too wily. They will think of some way to allow cameras in the courts, but under such burdensome conditions that it will seem like a bad idea.”

Thomas Heffelfinger, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said at an April 20 press conference that it could be months before additional charges are brought and jurisdiction is decided.

Judge Bans Cameras from Blake trial

A Los Angeles County judge has banned cameras from the courtroom in the trial of actor Robert Blake.

In February, Superior Court Judge Darlene Schempp banned cameras from the courtroom in the murder trial of the former “Baretta” star, who is accused of shooting and killing his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, on May 4, 2001.

Schempp’s primary concern, she said, was the effect cameras would have on what witnesses say in court.

“You can’t expect that witnesses won’t watch,” Schempp said in her order. “And witnesses on the stand for two or three days might go home and watch their own testimony and decide to change it.”

Blake’s trial was temporarily delayed because of his inability to keep a lawyer. Over the past year, three defense attorneys have resigned from the case.

The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 9.

N.Y. Federal Judge Videotapes His Sentencing Proceedings

New York federal judge Jack Weinstein announced in January that he will begin videotaping all of his courtroom sentences. Cameras are unconditionally barred from all trial courts, according to Section 52 of the New York Civil Rights Law, and all federal courtrooms.

However, Weinstein said the prohibition against cameras is in regard to the public broadcasting of court proceedings, not the taping of them.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of New York said Weinstein has not encountered any resistance from state or federal officials.

Weinstein said the move is in reaction to a provision in a new child protection law signed by President Bush in April 2003 called the PROTECT Act. The provision, commonly known as the Feeney Amendment, makes it more difficult for a judge to use discretion in sentencing criminals, and makes it easier for the government to appeal “light” sentences.

Weinstein, who opposes mandatory minimum drug sentences, has accused Congress of forcing judges into delivering harsher sentences.

He said he has begun taping his courtroom sentences because an appeals court would have to review a case in its entirety. That means seeing the defendant, his/her family and witnesses, Weinstein said.

“It’s very hard to sentence a person if you haven’t seen them in person,” Weinstein said. “You can’t see someone’s diminutive stature — they may not be able to handle assaults [in prison] — or a close relationship they might have with a young child.”

Weinstein, who has been called “the quintessential activist judge” by The New York Times, said the government has not yet appealed any case in which he has videotaped a sentencing.

Cameras Banned from Peterson Trial

A California judge has denied media requests to allow news outlets to broadcast the much-publicized murder trial of Scott Peterson.

Judge Alfred A. Delucchi of Superior Court in San Mateo County will not allow cameras to broadcast the trial because “jurors get antsy” when cameras are in the court, he said. Peterson is charged with murdering his wife, Lacey, and their unborn son. Lacey was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.

Peterson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said in court that he agreed with Delucchi’s decision because he wanted to avoid “a bigger zoo than it already is.”

Delucchi did make a point of telling print journalists that they were welcome to attend. “This is not going to be a secret trial,” he said.

A change of venue hearing was scheduled for May 7. On Jan 8, Judge Al Girolami ordered the trial moved from Stanislaus County to San Mateo. Peterson’s lead attorney, however, believes the trial should again be moved, to the Los Angeles area. u