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Camera ban ruled unconstitutional, but not all courts agree

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From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 29.

From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 29.

The right to use cameras in courtrooms is making headway in the state of New York, but not in California.

A judge in Albany found an absolute ban on cameras in state courts unconstitutional in the case of four officers accused of the second-degree murder of Amadou Diallo, but a judge in Los Angeles with an admitted bias against cameras in court is excluding them from the trial of accused Symbionese Liberation Army conspirator Sarah Jane Olson.

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Albany judge finds camera ban unconstitutional

An Albany trial judge found an absolute ban on cameras in state courts unconstitutional and will allow television cameras from Court TV to cover the controversial trial of four police officers charged with murder.

State trial court Justice Joseph Teresi overturned the state ban on cameras in the courtroom in late January, declaring the absolute ban violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and finding the “great public interest” in the Amadou Diallo case mandates an open court proceeding.

“The quest for justice in any case must be accomplished under the eyes of the public,” Teresi said in a written order. “Allowing the trial to be televised will further the interests of justice, enhance public understanding of the judicial system and maintain a high level of confidence in the judiciary.”

Teresi’s ruling permits only Court TV’s cameras in the courtroom. Court TV’s request was made after a request made by the New York Daily News, Newsday, the New York Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Albany Times Union, the New York Law Journal, and Clear Channel Communications Inc., was denied. Court TV said it would provide access to its tapes to other media organizations wishing to broadcast the trial.

Court TV argued that the United States and New York state constitutions guarantee their right to televise the trial.

Members of an elite New York crime unit fired at an unarmed Diallo 41 times while searching a Bronx neighborhood for a rape suspect in February 1999. Diallo, a West African immigrant, was struck by 19 bullets. Officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carrol, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder.

It has been almost three years since a camera has been allowed in a New York courtroom. New York began a ten-year experiment televising civil and criminal trials in 1987. Legislators refused to renew the experiment in 1997, citing what they termed the “circus-like” nature of the O.J. Simpson trial, among other reasons.

In compliance with the rules of the old experiment, witnesses in the Diallo case may request that their testimony not be televised. Court TV uses one video camera, which only runs during those parts of the proceedings that are part of the public record.

Both Stephen Worth, one of the lawyers for the police officers, and Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said they did not plan to appeal the decision.

Gov. George Pataki, Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have all said they support a bill that would authorize cameras in the courtrooms. (In re Courtroom Television Network)

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Other New York courts split on camera access

Following the reasoning of Teresi’s ruling, Justice Dan Lamont in Albany decided in late January to allow local television cameras to cover the trial of a young woman accused of killing her child. (New York v. Strawbridge)

Earlier, however, New York Supreme Court Justice Jerome Gorski in Buffalo ruled in November that cameras be barred from the trial of a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful death. Gorski said he was following the state law prohibiting the use of cameras in the courtroom, as well as prohibiting attorneys from speaking to reporters about the trial — an instruction that Johnnie Cochran, who represents the family of a woman killed in a traffic accident, said he may be testing.

The wrongful death suit filed by the family of Cynthia Wiggins claims Wiggins was the victim of a racist policy that kept the bus she rode to her job at the Walden Galleria Shopping Mall in Buffalo from dropping passengers on site as a way to deter inner-city residents from frequenting the mall. The bus instead left its passengers off near a busy intersection, within walking distance of the mall.

Reporters covering the case told The Buffalo News that it may be too difficult to cover the trial without courtroom footage, claiming there is an element of emotion that only can be captured by live audio and video.

Interviews with the witnesses outside the courtroom have been the basis of most audio and video reports and could lead to unbalanced coverage, according to the reporters. (Wiggins v. Bunch)

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Judge bans cameras from California murder trial

Accused Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) conspirator Sarah Jane Olson is requesting her trial be televised for public viewing so as to guarantee a fair trial.

Olson was indicted for conspiracy to commit murder in 1976 after she allegedly planted bombs under the hoods of two police cars. The attempted bombings were ostensibly in retaliation for the death of six SLA members whose hideout burned in a shootout with Los Angeles police in 1974.

California Superior Court Judge James M. Ideman banned all television cameras from the proceedings in Los Angeles, admitting his bias towards cameras in the courtroom. Ideman noted he and many of his colleagues believe the presence of television cameras in the courtroom changes the way attorneys act and alters how jurors perceive a trial. The involvement of Patty Hearst Shaw as a witness for the defense also played a role in the judge’s decision.

Olson’s attorneys, along with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Court TV, and CNN are asking Ideman to reverse his decision on the ban as well as the gag order placed on Olson, the lawyers and all witnesses. (California v. Olson)