Cameras make Diallo shooting trial a fully public event

Friday, February 18, 2000

NEW YORK — The Bronx street where Amadou Diallo died in a barrage of police gunfire is 140 miles from the Albany court where four cops are charged with his murder, but a television camera in the courtroom helps Diallo’s old neighbors and others bear witness to the trial. In conversations on Feb. 15 at the site of the killing, they said that was important.

“We can’t be there ourselves, but it’s better than nothing,” said Michael Crawford, 47, a Queens man who visited the scene of the killing to make sense of it for himself and who has watched trial coverage. His friend Winston Montique, 43, pronounced the presence of cameras in the Diallo courtroom as “excellent.”

The trial was moved from the Bronx to Albany to offset pretrial publicity that might prejudice jurors against the defendants, prompting concern that New York City residents would have little opportunity to witness a trial of great importance to them. However, when trial judge Justice Joseph Teresi ruled that the New York law prohibiting television cameras in court was unconstitutional, Court TV gained the right to cover the proceedings.

Court TV’s camera has served as the pool camera for other news organizations, making the trial a staple of New York City television news and making the trial available to the rest of the nation.

Teresi’s ruling also gives citizens an opportunity to judge the merits of having a camera in a New York courtroom. From 1987 to 1997 cameras were allowed in New York courtrooms, but “politically created procrastination and inaction,” in the words of Teresi’s ruling, subsequently barred them. In 2000, audio-visual trial coverage is allowed in 48 states; 37 televise trials.

Carrington Black, 14, who lives near the scene of the slaying, said that television coverage had definitely helped him understand the trial. “They show what happens in the courtroom, what they’re doing, what they’re talking about.”

At the small shrine of candles and posters at the location of the shooting, neighborhood residents and visitors to the scene unanimously echoed Black. “The more I see it the more I can judge,” said an elderly man.

But if people on Wheeler Avenue think it is important that they are getting to see the trial, they are not always pleased with the momentum and tenor of the trial, which some of them think is moving towards an acquittal of the officers.

Michael Crawford of Queens, after surveying and pacing off the slaying scene during his visit, said he found police accounts unpersuasive. “It’s a total farce. It’s ridiculous,” he said, standing outside the vestibule where Diallo was slain.

Crawford’s unease with the proceedings was echoed by others on Wheeler Avenue, who stopped to read posters on the sidewalk or to inspect the small, bullet-riddled vestibule where Diallo died. They spoke not in the hotheaded tones that attract the attention of television cameras, but in subdued voices filled with disappointment, anger, confusion, sorrow and regret.

Frequently, the people on Wheeler Avenue questioned the police officers’ testimony and perceived a lack of vigor in the prosecution’s questioning of the officers. “Justice has to be served,” said one man who barely broke stride. “Alligator tears,” said another, referring to a police officer who cried on the witness stand while recounting the shooting. Two nurses drove by to see the scene, and explained how they come home to the neighborhood at the end of their shift, late at night, fearful of being accosted on the street. “I don’t know if I would stop if I was asked to,” said one.

Television coverage, Carrington Black says, has given him a frame of comparison for judging trials: Having watched the O.J. Simpson trial on television, he finds the Diallo shooting trial “more serious.” His observation rings true in general for both the Diallo courtroom and the coverage.

As seen on Court TV, Teresi runs a brisk and orderly courtroom. Beth Karas, Court TV’s reporter in Albany, delivers informed, insightful and understated reports. Fred Graham, Court TV’s chief anchor and managing editor, provides useful analysis. Unfortunately, the overheated teasers between Court TV news segments — complete with sound bites from testimony, swirling music, sirens and sounds that evoke gunshots — are too much show business. At times the overwrought commentary of co-anchor Nancy Grace goes beyond reporting the emotions in the courtroom, which we have already seen and heard for ourselves thanks to the camera, to amplify those emotions without expanding our knowledge of the trial.

But on balance, the camera in Teresi’s courtroom has provided the public with a unique window on an important and controversial trial without compromising the integrity of the proceedings. There is no obvious sign of the courtroom grandstanding that opponents of cameras in the courts often fear. Any attempts by the prosecution and defense to speak to the public at large have occurred outside the courtroom, as they would with or without a camera inside.

The people on Wheeler Avenue, like the rest of us, benefit from having a camera in this courtroom because it makes the Diallo shooting trial a fully public event. They may not always like what they see happening in Albany, but it matters to them that they get to see it with their own eyes.