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No conviction reversal for presence of cameras in courtroom

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW YORK   ·   Broadcasting   ·   Feb. 9, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW YORK   ·   Broadcasting   ·   Feb. 9, 2006

No conviction reversal for presence of cameras in courtroom

  • A defendant’s murder conviction cannot be overturned solely because of a judge’s decision to allow cameras in his courtroom, an intermediate appeals court ruled.

Feb. 9, 2006  ·   A judge’s decision to allow camera coverage of a criminal trial without a defendant’s consent does not automatically warrant reversing the defendant’s conviction, a New York appellate court ruled Thursday.

To warrant a reversal, a defendant must show that the presence of cameras deprived him or her of the right to a fair trial, the Court of Appeals in Albany ruled unanimously. Convicted murderer Dianne Odell did not do that in her appeal, the court said.

“Reversal is required only if [the] defendant demonstrates that she was deprived of a fair trial due to actual prejudice resulting from the presence of the cameras during trial,” Justice D. Bruce Crew III wrote for the five-judge intermediate level appeals court.

New York bans cameras from courtrooms, but a few judges have allowed cameras in their courtrooms anyway. Sullivan County Judge Frank J. LaBuda did so during Odell’s January 2004 trial, which was televised by Court TV.

Thursday’s ruling surprised some observers, who thought the appeals court’s ruling last year in Heckstall v. McGrath would require reversal. In that case, the court ruled that a Rensselaer County judge interpreted the statewide camera ban too narrowly when he said it prohibited cameras only during the testimony of subpoenaed witnesses. Cameras must be banned throughout a trial, the court said.

In the Heckstall decision, the appeals court ordered Judge Patrick J. McGrath not to allow televised coverage of a proceeding in which subpoenaed witnesses might testify. Calling the right to a fair trial paramount, the court wrote in Heckstall that “[u]nfortunately, the extent to which cameras in the courtroom affect that right . . . is unknown and largely unmeasurable.”

New York allowed cameras in its courts during a 10-year trial period that ended in 1997. Since then, numerous legal battles have erupted over the issue.

In its latest opinion, the court noted that the defense did not apply for an order preventing televised coverage. Doing so is the proper way to stop a court from allowing cameras, the justices said.

The prosecution took no position on allowing cameras in Odell’s trial, District Attorney Stephen Lungen said.

Had the defense requested a camera ban before the trial began, “my guess is they would have been successful,” Lungen said.

“It would have been a simple [request] to bring,” he said. “And that remedy was not brought.”

The justices’ discussion of cameras in courts comprised a relatively small part of the decision to uphold Odell’s conviction for murdering three of her 12 children.

In addition to the assertion that the presence of cameras in the courtroom mandated reversing her conviction, Odell’s attorneys argued that statements she gave to police were inadmissable because she and her husband had asked to consult a lawyer. The court disagreed.

Court records show that in 2003, Arizona authorities discovered the decomposed bodies of three newborn children in a storage unit Odell had rented and abandoned a decade earlier. Odell, who was traced to Pennsylvania, told authorities the children were born out of wedlock in the early to mid-1980s while she was living in Sullivan County, N.Y., according to several news accounts.

Defense attorney Aiesha L. Battle did not return calls for this story.

(New York v. Odell)AB

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