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Several states press for new examination of benefits, drawbacks of cameras in courts

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 28.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 28.

Courts in New Hampshire, Indiana and Mississippi are reviewing policies to provide additional media and camera access to the courtroom. Meanwhile, recent decisions in New York challenge a 56-year-old state statute that bans cameras and tape recorders from courtrooms.

In Congress, a bill introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) would give federal judges discretionary power to permit photography, electronic recording, broadcasting and televising of court proceedings. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but awaits debate on the floor. The bill includes a provision that would give jurors and witnesses the option of having their faces and voices obscured in televised proceedings.

In New Hampshire on May 30, the Supreme Court accepted a petition from area news organizations and agreed to evaluate a rule governing a trial judge’s ability to limit the media’s use of television, radio and still photography to report on criminal proceedings.

WMUR/Channel 9, The Boston Globe and the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters intervened in the case because of frustration with the limits placed on the coverage of New Hampshire v. Tulloch.

In that case, Robert Tulloch, 18, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and murder conspiracy in the stabbing deaths of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop and was sentenced to life in prison on April 4. James Parker, 17, also pleaded guilty to being an accomplice to the murder of Susanne Zantop.

In March, Grafton County Superior Court Judge Peter Smith said he would ban television, radio and photographic coverage of Tulloch’s trial. Smith noted New Hampshire Superior Court Rule 78 gives trial court judges broad discretion in providing the media with access to the courtroom.

The local media filed petitions requesting access to the courtroom and an emergency motion for access to the hearing when it became apparent that Tulloch would change his plea to guilty. The Supreme Court granted the media motion, allowing limited access to the April 4 hearing.

With petitions pending, the state argued that the issue of access to the courtroom was moot, since Tulloch had been sentenced. However, the media contended in briefs that the issue of media access has widespread implications in New Hampshire. They argued that the New Hampshire Supreme Court needs to articulate a legal framework for the application of Rule 78. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal.

In Indiana, the courts are experimenting with webcasting oral arguments in all Supreme Court and selected Court of Appeals cases. Indiana is one of 17 states with either experimental or partially restrictive camera access rules, according to a 2001 study by the National Center for State Courts. However, on two separate occasions the Supreme Court allowed an independent television producer to bring her cameras into three Indiana juvenile courtrooms.

Currently there is no formal effort to revise the state’s rules, but Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard has said the court would consider future experiments with courtroom cameras.

In Mississippi, the state Supreme Court’s Media and the Courts Study Committee is addressing courtroom access, including camera access, in a series of meetings around the state. The committee’s chairperson, State Supreme Court Justice James Graves Jr., supports cameras in the courtroom, according to media reports. At the conclusion of the meetings, a recommendation will be made to the rules committee regarding camera policies.

In New York, differing results in two cases have raised more questions about the constitutionality of the state’s statute that bans cameras in the courtroom.

New York Civil Rights Law Section 52 prohibits the broadcast of trial court proceedings and has been in effect since the expiration of an “experimental law” passed in 1987 and regularly renewed over a 10-year period. Since then, several courts in New York have found the prohibition on cameras unconstitutional.

In February, New York State Supreme Court Justice Nicolas Colabella declared the law unconstitutional and allowed cameras to televise the trial of Judge Victor Barron. Barron has been accused of bribery, allegedly ordering a lawyer to give him $115,000 in exchange for approving a $4.9 million settlement in a personal injury case.

However, Barron’s lawyer, Barry Kamins, is challenging Colabella’s decision, saying Colabella should follow a prior ruling by the trial court that there is no constitutional right to broadcast trials. (New York v. Barron)

In a separate New York case, the media’s attempts to gain access to an arraignment hearing of a man accused of murdering a doctor who performed abortions were thwarted by a state trial court in Erie County in June.

The Buffalo News and Lin Television, a CBS affiliate, had requested permission to place cameras in the courtroom for the arraignment of James Kopp.

Kopp, 47, is accused of killing Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, who was shot and killed by a sniper at his home in East Amherst, N.Y., in October 1998. Kopp also faces federal charges of using a firearm to commit a violent crime and violating a federal law that makes it a crime to interfere with the operations of an abortion clinic. Kopp was extradited from France on June 4 under an agreement that he will not face the death penalty.

The Buffalo News requested that a still photographer be allowed in the courtroom while Lin Television wanted to provide video coverage of the arraignment. State Supreme Court Judge Eugene Fahey denied the media’s motion, citing security concerns and a need to ensure protection of the defendant’s rights.

Section 52 prohibits the broadcast of certain court proceedings, but it does not apply to still photography. The Buffalo News argued that the court also has the authority to permit still photography based on the Rules of the Chief Administrator and supporting case law.

Joseph Finnerty, attorney for The Buffalo News, further argued that photography would neither prejudice the rights of any parties nor disrupt court proceedings because cameras are virtually silent and operate in available light.

The media appealed Fahey’s decision to Judge Vincent Doyle, administrative judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Buffalo. Doyle upheld Fahey’s decision, citing rules requiring the consent of all parties to allow media access in arraignment and suppression hearings.

Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark did not oppose the media’s presence, but defense counsel Paul Cambria Jr. objected, telling the court that he felt camera coverage “distorts the process and results in unfairness to the defendant.” (New York v. Kopp) — JLW