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Controversies continue over camera access to courts

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

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

From the moment broadcasters showed images of O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco being pursued by Los Angeles police cars and televised the handing down of Simpson’s not-guilty verdict, the issue of cameras in the courtroom has been hotly debated in both state and federal courts.

Many judges fear that cameras in their court will produce a carnival-like atmosphere, like the one they say surrounded the Simpson trial, and will inhibit the accused’s right to a fair trial because all parties involved will act differently in front of a camera. Radio and television broadcasters stand behind their belief in the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a public trial and the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.

Recently the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow cameras to record proceedings in all federal courts. New York has seen the most activity concerning cameras in the courtroom, as elected officials unsuccessfully sought to enact legislation to allow cameras, and a number of judges in the state have declared the ban on cameras in courtrooms unconstitutional. In Oklahoma, a judge decided to allow cameras in pretrial proceedings, but the decision was overturned. A New Hampshire judge barred cameras from his courtroom, saying they would cause a carnival-like atmosphere, but a California judge denied a request to keep cameras out of the trial of three police officers charged with framing a suspect.


House approves measure to allow cameras in courts

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure in May that would allow cameras to record proceedings in all federal courtrooms under certain circumstances.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) introduced the bill last year, arguing that the unfettered broadcast of trials would help inform Americans about their government. The bill sat in the House until Chabot offered it as an amendment to the Federal Courts Improvement Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.).

A similar Senate bill has been introduced in this session by Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D- N.Y.).

The bill allows cameras in the courtroom at the discretion of the presiding judge and with the consent of all named parties. However, the court also could order that the faces and voices of witnesses in televised proceedings be disguised or otherwise obscured if they so wished. (H.R. 1752, S. 721)


New York judges, officials wrestle with camera issue

In January, the judge presiding over the case involving the police shooting of Amadou Diallo found that the state law that bans cameras from courtrooms violates the First Amendment. Albany Supreme Court Judge Joseph Teresi, acting on a request for access filed by CourtTV, stated that the “great public interest” in the Amadou Diallo case mandated that the public be allowed to view the proceedings. (New York v. Boss)

Cameras had not been allowed in New York courts for nearly three years since legislators refused to renew an experiment televising civil and criminal trials in 1997, citing the “circus-like” atmosphere surrounding the Simpson trial, among other reasons.

The success of the broadcast of the Diallo trial inspired Gov. George Pataki to propose legislation that would allow audio-visual coverage in the courts for two years while granting victims and some witnesses broad veto power.

Pataki said an open court is essential to what he termed “the most important freedom … to obtain information and knowledge,” the Albany Times Union reported. ”We are going to try to do everything we can to pass legislation this year that would open up our courtrooms to the cable industry and telecommunications industry … so people can see the trials.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. James Lack (R-Hauppauge), includes protections for victims, children and litigants in Family Court and would prohibit coverage of the testimony of children and crime victims. The bill would also give non-party witnesses in Family Court and criminal cases the right to exclude themselves from audio-visual coverage and establish a high standard for courts to apply in determining whether cameras should be allowed in sexual abuse and domestic violence cases.

The bill advanced to a third reading in the house and was committed to the Rules Committee for the summer recess. (S.B. 6382)

Since Teresi’s ruling in the Diallo case that allowed televising the proceedings, other judges have been forced to address the issue.

Cayuga County Judge Peter Corning allowed cameras in the sentencing of Michelle Davis after he had denied camera access during the trial. Davis was sentenced to six years for setting fire to her house while her son slept inside. (New York v. Davis)

Rensselaer County Judge Patrick McGrath allowed cameras at the plea of bank robber Raymond Taylor based upon his finding that the state law banning cameras from courts applies only to “proceedings in which the testimony of witnesses” may be offered. McGrath said that he was unsure if Teresi’s decision was correct, but that it applied to Teresi’s case only. “My personal opinion is that cameras should be allowed in all proceedings, but my opinion is limited by the laws that are on the books,” the Times Union quoted McGrath saying. (New York v. Taylor)

State trial judge Joseph Forma in Buffalo ruled that cameras would not be allowed at the sentencing of Sheila Johnson-Moore, the former grants administrator for Buffalo Public Schools. Forma gave no reason for his ruling. Johnson-Moore was sentenced to three to six years in prison for stealing $26,208 from a federal education grant. (New York v. Johnson-Moore)

State judge William Bristol decided to let cameras into his Rochester courtroom during the death penalty trial of Jose Julian Santiago, but Bristol’s decision was stayed by a higher court and Santiago’s sentence, imprisonment for life without parole instead of the death penalty, was handed down before the decision could be reviewed.

Four television stations and the Gannett Rochester Newspapers had appealed the stay in the hope that the state high court, the Court of Appeals, would decide on the constitutionality of the 1952 state law banning cameras from courtrooms. (New York v. Santiago)


Cameras not allowed in Terry Nichols hearings

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in Oklahoma City on June 1 vacated the order of Oklahoma District Judge Robert Murphy Jr. that would have allowed cameras in the pretrial hearing of accused Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols.

The appellate court said televising the hearing would “violate [Nichols’] right to due process of the law” as guaranteed by the Oklahoma Constitution.

The appellate court found that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a public trial belongs to the accused, not the public, and that there is no “constitutional provision [that] guarantees a right to televise trials.”

Murphy had found that an Oklahoma Supreme Court rule prohibiting electronic coverage of proceedings violates the state and federal constitutions. He found that the trial or presiding judge has the final authority to order, manage and control the courtroom, and that camera coverage would not adversely affect a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Nichols’ attorney, Brian Hermanson, asked the appellate court to stay the proceedings and vacate Murphy’s decision allowing cameras at the hearings because, he argued, it would generate even more pre-trial publicity and further compromise Nichols’ right to a fair and impartial jury.

The pretrial hearings have been postponed for two months as prosecutors press efforts to disqualify Murphy. (Nichols v. District Ct.)


Fear of “carnival-like” atmosphere keeps cameras from New Hampshire trial

Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Peter Smith refused to allow cameras in his court based on his decision that the court could not adequately protect the defendant, juror and witnesses from any adverse effects or attention by the media.

Smith said that cameras would pose the risk of eliciting a “carnival-like” atmosphere in the courtroom during the murder trial of James Hall, who is accused of strangling his mother because she intended to move into a retirement home, leaving him without financial support.

“It will not serve justice to allow cameras in the courtroom,” Smith wrote, stating that Hall’s constitutional rights might be jeopardized by the media’s presence at the trial. “The state constitutional right to gather news [does not] entitle the media to videotape and/or photograph court proceedings,” Smith wrote.

According to the Concord Monitor, other Superior Court judges have recently decided to allow cameras in their courtrooms. New Hampshire law leaves the decision to allow cameras and recording devices in the courtroom to the presiding judge.

Hall was convicted on June 23 of murdering his mother, but two jurors have said they switched their votes to guilty because of instructions from Smith on how to consider Hall’s state of mind. The jurors wrote a letter to Smith stating that they now regret their decisions, which has prompted Hall’s attorneys to ask Smith to set aside the verdict. (New Hampshire v. Hall)


Request to ban cameras from California court denied

Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler denied the request of attorney Barry Levin to ban cameras from the trial of three Los Angeles police officers charged with conspiring to frame a man in a 1996 gun possession case.

“Given the public interest in this case and the fact that the criminal justice system faces scrutiny, the motion is denied,” Fidler said.

Sergeants Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy, and Officer Paul Harper are former colleagues in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, a division that has come under heavy scrutiny for unscrupulous actions and corruption. Ortiz and Liddy have been recently charged with two new corruption charges involving another incident. (California v. Ortiz)