Judges don’t do justice any favors by keeping cameras out of courtroom

Thursday, February 3, 2000

The beauty of televised courtroom coverage always has been in the eye of the beholder.

First Amendment advocates and civil libertarians trumpet cameras in the courtroom as vital to the public’s understanding of the judiciary. Others, including many judges and attorneys, maintain that television coverage poisons the courtroom and distorts the judicial process.

In the absence of a national consensus on the issue, states have been left to develop their own laws about when, if ever, to permit televised coverage of trials. Not surprisingly, widely varying standards have resulted. Rarely, however, has the contrast between pro- and anti-camera rulings been as stark as that seen in recent decisions from New York and California.

Joseph Teresi, a New York trial judge, held on Jan. 24 that a New York law banning cameras from courtrooms was unconstitutional. Stating that the “quest for justice in any case must be accomplished under the eyes of the public,” Teresi held that allowing television coverage would “further the interests of justice, enhance public understanding of the judicial system and maintain a high level of confidence in the judiciary.”

In California, on the other hand, Judge James Ideman on Jan. 10 barred cameras from the courtroom in which former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson will be tried. Ideman based his ruling in large part on the possible effect televised coverage would have on star witness Patty Hearst Shaw, who was kidnapped and allegedly raped by SLA members in 1974.

“To make her go through all that again” with a large television audience watching, Ideman said, “would be like raping her again after 25 years. I can’t do that to her.”

However thoughtful Ideman might seem, his sympathy is misplaced, especially in this case. Hearst Shaw, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California pointed out, already has told her story in books, magazines and television programs. Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that Hearst Shaw would be traumatized by televised coverage of her testimony.

Even if testifying would be difficult for her, however, that difficulty would not justify restricting news coverage. Crime victims, including rape victims, testify every day in open courtrooms across the country. Many of these victims undoubtedly would prefer to tell their stories behind closed doors, but the constitutional presumption of openness trumps their desire for privacy. Ideman’s witness-friendly standard ignores that presumption and threatens access to all criminal trials.

Teresi’s ruling, on the other hand, throws open the courtroom doors in almost every New York case. Within days of the ruling, another New York judge agreed to allow television pool coverage of a trial in which a mother is accused of killing her baby. Legislators in that state also have expressed a renewed interest in codifying the right to televise trial testimony. The legislators’ statements are particularly significant because a prior law permitting audio and video recording of trial testimony was allowed to expire in 1997.

The backdrop for Teresi’s ruling is the well-publicized case in which four New York City police officers are charged with murder in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed street vendor from West Africa. While searching for a rape suspect, the four officers fired 41 bullets at Diallo, hitting him 19 times. All four officers have claimed they believed Diallo was reaching for a gun.

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, a state appeals court ordered that the trial be moved from New York City to Albany. Concerned that pretrial publicity also might taint jurors in Albany, Teresi in mid-January sealed most court records in the case. Claiming the proceedings had been “deluged by a tidal wave of prejudicial publicity” in New York City, Teresi said it “would be horrific to have similar circumstances concerning publicity occur again.”

When it came to broadcast coverage of the trial itself, however, Teresi took a more open view. While Teresi was loathe to feed the news-media animal prior to the trial, he said he hoped that coverage of the trial would reduce political and racial tension. “The denial of access to the vast majority [of the trial],” he wrote, “will accomplish nothing but more divisiveness.”

Whether the verdicts in this case ultimately are thought to be fair, of course, remains to be seen. However they are viewed, though, New Yorkers are better off for being able to make that determination by themselves.

Douglas Lee is a partner in the Dixon, Ill., law firm of Ehrmann Gehlbach Beckman Badger & Lee and a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.