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Camera controversy in courtrooms continues

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From the Winter 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32. A New York judge is facing…

From the Winter 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32.

A New York judge is facing a complaint for allowing cameras in his courtroom. Elsewhere, judges in Delaware, Ohio and New Jersey are webcasting proceedings. In Mississippi, experimental camera rules are now permanent and the high court is enforcing them.

California’s chief jurist has given a favorable nod to cameras and a U.S. Supreme Court justice has given a rare OK to being photographed.

And as reporters are denied any camera access to the Michael Jackson trial, a cable network has decided on next-day re-enactments using trial participant look-alikes.

New York County judge taking heat for cameras in courtroom

A New York County judge who decided in November to allow cameras into a first-degree murder trial despite a statewide ban on cameras is being accused of jeopardizing the defendant’s fair trial rights.

New York’s Capital Defender Office is accusing Rensselaer County Judge Patrick McGrath of wrongly exposing Gregory Heckstall to television and newspaper coverage by allowing cameras in the courtroom.

Cameras were permitted in New York courtrooms under a 10-year experiment that ended in 1997. Since then, New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has opposed all camera legislation, and some trial lawyers have lobbied against permanently allowing cameras in the courtroom, arguing that a defendant cannot receive a fair trial if cameras are present. The New York Bar Association supports cameras in courtrooms.

McGrath is not the first jurist to allow cameras since the experiment ended. Justice Joseph Teresi ruled in his trial court in August 2000 that the state’s camera ban violates the First Amendment. Teresi permitted cameras in a trial of New York City policemen accused of murdering Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant, saying their use served the public interest in the case.

In Heckstall’s case, Public Defender Deb Czuba in November asked the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court to bar cameras from his trial. The panel seemed to favor McGrath during the hearing, the Albany Times Union reported. “We ban cameras in the courtroom now, but we didn’t yesterday, and may not tomorrow,” Justice Robert S. Rose said during the hearing.

Czuba stressed that witnesses may not be as willing to tell the complete truth if cameras are in the courtroom, but conceded, “we can’t prove that a witness would have testified differently had a camera not been there.”

Peter Moschetti, McGrath’s attorney, said that the presence of a camera was “an administrative determination. And what the judge is doing is administering his court, just like he decides where the tables go and how many people can be there.”

In another case, the New York Court of Appeals has agreed to hear an appeal by Court TV that the state ban on cameras in courtrooms is unconstitutional.

Delaware, Ohio, New Jersey courts turn to webcasts

A Delaware chancery judge used the Web to broadcast a high-profile case from a tiny courtroom in Georgetown, Del., that seats about 50 observers. Chancellor William B. Chandler III decided to webcast the trial involving Walt Disney Co.’s $140 million severance package to former executive Michael Ovitz.

The judge recognized the case would be newsworthy outside the rural district. The webcast was offered free to Delaware residents and the first 50 out-of-state users. Other out-of-state users were to pay $10 per day for access.

In Ohio, Medina Judge James L. Kimbler of the Court of Common Pleas has set up his personal digital camcorder on a tripod in his courtroom to tape sentencing hearings that he presides over. He sends the tapes to a company that edits them and places them on the court’s Web site, www.medinacommonpleas.com.

“I want you to know what is going on in your Medina County Courthouse,” Kimbler says on the site. In February, the state Supreme Court began a webcast of oral arguments.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, which often experiences overflow crowds in its 62-seat courtroom, began a live webcast of all its proceedings in January. Links are posted at www.njcourtsonline.com and are available for 30 days.

Mississippi makes camera rules permanent, overrules judge

Rules allowing cameras in most of Mississippi courts during an 18-month experiment are permanent and have been expanded to let judges allow more than one camera in the courtroom, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided in December.

The old rules allowed only one “pool” camera that provided coverage to other media. The new rules allow for as many cameras as do not distract court proceedings. The new rules apply to the high court, the Court of Appeals and chancery, circuit and county courts. Cameras will still not be allowed in justice courts and municipal courts.

A month after deciding to make the rules permanent, the court ruled 5-3 that cameras cannot be barred from Mississippi courtrooms unless a judge specifically shows how cameras would deprive a defendant of a fair trial.

The ruling elaborated on previous high court decisions in a case involving three men accused of conspiring to defraud an elderly Texas woman by buying 80 acres of land from her at $2,000 per acre and selling it for $14,000 per acre.

Last year, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon rejected two requests from Jackson, Miss., television station WLBT to broadcast the sentencing of David Richardson, a former Madison County, Miss., supervisor. Gordon said camera coverage would unduly influence the trial of an alleged co-conspirator, James Butler.

WLBT filed for camera access more than 48 hours in advance, as required by state rules, claiming that Gordon did not provide sufficient reason to ban media access in accordance with rules mandated by the state high court. Gordon told the Supreme Court that WLBT was using “ambush tactics . . . to bring the proceedings to a dead halt,” The Associated Press reported.

The high court rejected Gordon’s reasoning and in November agreed with WLBT, writing that the television station “shall be allowed to provide television coverage of the proceedings in accordance with the Mississippi Rules for Electronic and Photographic Coverage of Judicial Proceedings.”

The high court elaborated in a Jan. 20 ruling. Justice Bill Waller Jr., writing for the majority, said restricting camera and other media access to the courtroom “must be supported by specific, on the record findings of fact which show in what manner the coverage will cause a party to lose the right to a fair trial,” AP reported.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Kay Cobb said the camera rule “should not be read so narrowly as to exclude consideration of the right to fair trials to other closely related criminal defendants,” according to AP.

Dissenting Justice Chuck Easley said he is not opposed to cameras in the courtroom, but that trial judges are the best arbiters of cameras’ impact on a trial.

Peterson sentencing took same format as verdict

The sentencing to death of Scott Peterson for murdering his pregnant wife was broadcast via audio but not video, just as his verdict was.

A live audio feed from the San Mateo Superior Court was allowed in lieu of video coverage. Cameras were permitted in the courtroom only while the judge instructed the jury.

A gag order that went into effect in June 2003 for trial participants was lifted following the verdict and three separate press conferences were held by prosecutors and the victim’s family, friends of Peterson and jurors.

California judge declines request to block TV access

The media will not be barred from the trial of a Monterey, Calif., woman accused of trying to kill her estranged husband.

Deputy District Attorney Angela McNulty lost her bid to close the trial, which was slated to begin Feb. 7. She argued that the media should be banned from the courtroom during the trial, and sought a gag order on all attorneys and witnesses in the case. In an amended motion, she proposed banning television reporters and video cameras while allowing newspaper reporters.

Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal privately discussed the issue with McNulty, defense attorney Richard Rosen and television station KSBW. After the meeting Villarreal announced that television and still cameras would be permitted with certain restrictions.

Villarreal refused to grant the gag order, citing insufficient evidence. McNulty had presented an affidavit claiming Rosen leaked her request for a gag order to the press.

Ilona Leidig is charged with shooting her estranged husband and local restaurateur Ted Leidig.

Federal judge gives cameramen decorum rules

A federal judge in Chicago issued an edict in October on “media decorum” for still and video cameramen working in the lobby of the federal courthouse, one of the few federal courts that allows cameras in its lobby.

U.S. District Chief Judge Charles Kocoras asked cameramen to walk, not run, after notable people; pay attention when walking backward; avoid blocking exits when waiting for defendants; and follow instructions of security guards.

Kocoras wrote that the policy of allowing cameras in the courthouse lobby “has been successful for decades, thanks in large part to the cooperation and consideration of the media . . . I trust that will continue” under the rules of decorum.

Scalia allows TV cameras but no questions

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia allowed television cameras and tape recordings of a January forum at American University’s Washington College of Law. “No problem with press and C-SPAN,” Scalia said in a fax to the event’s moderator, New York University law professor Norman Dorsen, The Washington Post reported. Scalia surprised Steve Scully, C-SPAN’s political editor, the paper reported. “More often than not, we’re turned away” by the justice, he told the paper.

Journalists were not allowed to question Scalia, who appeared with Justice Stephen Breyer. The duo took questions only from students and professors.

But Scalia continues to have conflicts with the media. At a National Italian American Foundation event in October in Washington, he sharply told Associated Press photographer Manuel Balce Ceneta “That’s enough” while Ceneta was photographing another panelist.

Last year, Scalia banned both broadcast cameras and tape recorders from a speech he gave in Ohio after receiving a free-speech award. And at an event at a Mississippi high school, federal marshals who thought they were only enforcing Scalia’s recording ban seized the tapes of two reporters, for which Scalia later apologized.

California jurist: Cameras ‘expand the walls’

The California Supreme Court’s chief justice assessed the impact of cameras in the state’s courtrooms in an interview in late December with the The San Diego Union-Tribune. Justice Ronald M. George said court rules on cameras safeguard the outcome of court proceedings without impeding the effectiveness of electronic media coverage.

The public “can only benefit” from finding out what happens, which is “just integral to the people’s role in democracy,” he told the paper. The Supreme Court encouraged televising court proceedings into San Diego classrooms. “I call it an expansion of the walls of the courtroom and of the classroom electronically,” George said.

No cameras rule prompts re-enactment

E! Networks’ President and CEO Ted Harbert announced in mid-January that the cable network E! Entertainment will chronicle singer Michael Jackson’s trial on felony child molestation charges in Santa Barbara Superior Court using daily re-enactments of what happens in the courtroom.

No cameras are allowed in court during Jackson’s trial, so E! Networks has teamed with British Sky Broadcasting to reconstruct each day’s events. Actors will use court transcripts to recreate the previous day’s testimony and court action in daily half-hour programs.

The channel broadcast a similar re-enactment show during O.J. Simpson’s civil trial in 1996.

Eddie Florek, Rebecca Daugherty and Kirsten B. Mitchell contributed to this report.