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Courtrooms shuttered to cameras in three trials

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From the Spring 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33. By Andrew Brenner Judges in New…

From the Spring 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.

By Andrew Brenner

Judges in New Hampshire, New York and Virginia barred or severely limited broadcasters from their courtrooms in recent months, while three U.S. Supreme Court justices talked about cameras in their courtroom in a rare public appearance.

Cameras a no-go in New York

Cameras were barred in New York’s Rensselaer County Court for the murder trial of Gregory Heckstall following a February appellate ruling overturning County Judge Patrick McGrath’s decision to allow the trial to be broadcast.

The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, an intermediate appeals court, unanimously ruled that McGrath “exceeded his authority” and “ignored a clear statutory bar to cameras.” The Albany court also ruled that the presence of cameras would “result in a public spectacle.”

“It is undisputed that the right to a fair trial is paramount. Unfortunately, the extent to which cameras in the courtroom affect that right . . . is unknown and largely unmeasurable,” Justice Anthony Kane wrote for the court.

Cameras were allowed in New York courtrooms under a 10-year trial experiment that ended in 1997. There have since been numerous legal battles over the issue. Court TV sued the state arguing that cameras should be allowed in courtrooms because trials are presumptively open to the public and press and rules restricting access are unconstitutional. The state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard arguments in the case April 27.

Local media barred from shooting video, photos in murder trial

A Richmond, Va., newspaper and two television stations were barred in February from photographing and broadcasting a high-profile murder trial after the Virginia Supreme Court refused a petition for appeal from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the stations.

Virginia’s Henrico County Circuit Judge Lee A. Harris Jr. had initially offered to let the local media cover the trial if they agreed not to publish or air any images from the proceedings until a verdict, stipulations that CBS’ “48 Hours” and Court TV agreed to, the Times-Dispatch reported. Harris withdrew the offer to the local media after a motion to lift the restriction was filed by the paper, WTVR-TV and WWBT-TV. Virginia law gives the presiding judge sole discretion over cameras in the courtroom.

An intermediate appellate court said it lacked jurisdiction in the matter and the state high court found “no reversible error” in Harris’ order, the paper reported.

Harris’ offer to the national media remained and in April, Court TV aired coverage of the trial, in which Piper Rountree was found guilty of murdering her ex-husband, Fredric Jablin.

Safety trumps First Amendment, N.H. judge says

A New Hampshire judge restricted the media covering a criminal trial from photographing two defendants while they are in the courtroom. The defendants, Brazilian nationals Leandro Alves and Felicio Viegas De-Oliveira, allegedly have ties to the Central American street gang Mara Salvatruchas, or MS-13.

In ruling from the bench during a March trial, Southern Carroll County District Court Judge Pamela Albee said that the personal safety of Alves and De-Oliveira trumped the First Amendment right of the media, The (Laconia) Citizen reported.

Peter Brunette, Alves’ court-appointed lawyer, asked for the media restriction, saying, “I would rather he not be depicted in any way,” the paper reported.

While the two defendants, on trial for various charges, were off limits to cameramen, the proceedings were open in accordance with state law, which allows broadcasting, photographing and recording of most court proceedings.

Supreme Court watch

Three Supreme Court justices recently reiterated their opposition to cameras in courtrooms, with Justice Antonin Scalia stressing that television news shows would only show snippets out of context if cameras were allowed.

Scalia, who remains adamant in his opposition to television cameras in court, joined fellow Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor at a “Constitutional Conversation,” an appearance at the National Archives where all three spoke out against television coverage of oral arguments in the nation’s highest court.

“I wouldn’t mind having the proceedings of the court not just audiotaped, but televised if I thought it would only go out on a channel that everyone would watch gavel to gavel,” Scalia said during the program, which was televised on C-SPAN. “But if you sent it out on C-SPAN gavel to gavel so they can really understand what the court is about, what the whole process is, 10,000 [viewers] will see 15-second takeouts on network news which I guarantee you will be uncharacteristic of what the court does. So I have come to the conclusion that it will misinform the public rather than inform the public to have our proceedings televised,” Scalia said.

Breyer also weighed in: When “you say you start with the audio and see what happens and learn from experience and be very, very cautious, I think that would reflect my point of view,” he said.