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OpenCourt can record Mass. jury trials, state high court judge rules

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OpenCourt, a Massachusetts courtroom transparency program can begin streaming video of jury trials at a local district court, a judge…

OpenCourt, a Massachusetts courtroom transparency program can begin streaming video of jury trials at a local district court, a judge from the state’s highest court ruled on Tuesday.

The project, initiated by Boston University’s WBUR-FM last year, already records daily proceedings such as early hearings and arraignments that precede criminal cases at Quincy District Court. Its plans to expand its coverage in July by filming jury trials from the courthouse in Quincy, Mass., just south of Boston, were delayed when a local district attorney posed a legal challenge to the project last month.

Arguing that OpenCourt’s video and audio coverage would compromise the fairness of jury trials, Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey, along with the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Service, wanted to prohibit the program’s broadcasts until operational guidelines were approved by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

But Judge Margot Botsford of that same court ruled yesterday in favor of the video streaming program, finding that OpenCourt is subject to the same rules that govern all other news media organizations covering the courts and therefore cannot be stopped from recording the jury trials.

“[T]he District Attorney’s fears seem speculative at best,” Botsford wrote in her opinion. “As suggested by the [Quincy District Court] Justices, it is appropriate to anticipate and expect that they will exercise their discretion to delineate clear and reasonable procedures for the presentation of requests by such victims and witnesses to prohibit the broadcast of a particular trial.”

As Botsford pointed out in her ruling, Quincy District Court Chief Justice Mark Coven already approved the program’s additional broadcasting plans and the court’s judiciary media committee developed preliminary guidelines to protect the people involved in the jury trials.

Those rules are the result of an earlier case involving OpenCourt, Commonwealth v. Barnes, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found in March that a judicial order compelling the project to redact material presented during open court was unconstitutional. While the court ruled in that case that it would be “appropriate” to have guidelines for OpenCourt’s recordings, it did not find a reason to suspend the project before the rules were finalized. This week’s ruling upheld that decision.

Because the OpenCourt project differs from the traditional media approach to the use of cameras in Massachusetts courtrooms, the judiciary media committee will draft final guidelines for the program by October. But in the meantime, OpenCourt can begin recording jury trials, the state supreme court judge decided.

At Quincy District Court, the pilot program streams daily video and audio recordings of gavel-to-gavel proceedings and posts the footage online two days later. The delay is designed to allow sufficient time for parties to request a redaction of certain information, according to OpenCourt, which aims to use technology to enhance public access to courtroom proceedings.

“As provided in this ruling, we will continue our current practice of submitting motions, on a case by case basis, asking the court to protect the rights and safety of vulnerable victims and witnesses,” said Morrissey’s office in a released statement.

John Davidow, executive director of OpenCourt, could not be reached for comment.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Massachusetts – Open Courts Compendium: XI. Cameras and other technology in the courtroom