Lack of cameras in courtrooms the focus of candid comments

Thursday, July 19, 2001
Catherine Crier of Court TV listens to point made by lawyer Barry Scheck.

NEW YORK — In a raucous, occasionally off-topic discussion, panelists sounded off on the increasing tendency of judges to bar cameras from the courtroom in high-profile trials. The blame, they say, falls on the O.J. Simpson trial.

Fred Graham, managing editor and chief correspondent of Court TV, tried to steer the bus to the topic of “Cameras in the Courts: The Next 10 Years,” along with Adam Clayton Powell III of The Freedom Forum, during the First Amendment Center discussion on July 17.

But the rest of the passengers — Catherine Crier of Court TV, John Miller of ABC News, Barry Scheck of the Cardozo School of Law and New York State Supreme Court Justice Lesley Crocker Snyder — were still looking back, casting blame on each other, on the press, on judges and on defense attorneys for pulling away from the televising of court proceedings.

As Graham put it, “As you look forward to the next 10 years, there is a strangely strong resistance … to continued camera coverage of court proceedings, and particularly trials.”

He cited the dragging-death case of James Byrd Jr. in Texas and the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming as recent high-profile trials that the public weren’t allowed to see.

“For some reason, there was a reluctance developing in high-profile cases to permit the country to see them,” he said.

What is the genesis of the problem? Some say a defendant’s right to a fair trial is compromised by cameras in courtrooms. Others say that’s never happened. But judges across the nation have increasingly decreed that they be barred.

“Bad cases make bad law. O.J. Simpson. Simple as that,” said Crier, host of Court TV’s “Catherine Crier Live.” “We had one high-profile trial that became an extraordinary (media) circus and was surveyed and managed by an incompetent judge — I’m sorry, Lance Ito — and he let it get completely out of hand. One trial, in my opinion, caused this devastation.”

And Ito wasn’t the only judge maligned after the Simpson case was over, according to Crocker Snyder.

“I’ve always been in favor of cameras in the courtroom, and I know lots of judges who are,” she said. “I think what was very disturbing to those of us who discussed it in the judiciary is that we felt that Ito made all of us look bad. I think that judges, some judges, got scared, but I don’t honestly think that’s the problem.”

Defense attorney Scheck agreed with Crier and Crocker Snyder that a media-circus trial can have an alarming effect. He opposes cameras in the courtroom because he believes they alter the behavior of witnesses, allow the broadcast media to use video in less-than-responsible ways and encourage a media-circus atmosphere.

But he reached further back than the 1995 trial of Simpson to prove his point.

The William Kennedy Smith rape trial of 1991, he said, “was one of the first classic celebrity-kind of trials where immediately the first few witnesses on the stand had received $50,0000 from the Globe or the National Enquirer, which completely tainted their testimony.”

Furthermore, Scheck said broadcast coverage in the style to which TV viewers have become accustomed could be blamed for putting the integrity of some trials at risk.

He called it “a whole cottage industry of 24/7-cable talking heads, gasbags that are completely uninformed, that are getting up there and just being encouraged to have conflict with one another. (Those are the people) whose commentary begins to affect the way the judge reacts. That’s what did in Lance Ito.”

For Miller, however, the Simpson trial was an eye-opener.

“I thought that trial was at the same time one of the worst-run criminal trials I’d ever seen and one of the greatest civic lessons for the American public,” he said.

Miller went on to compare the Simpson trial, dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” to the more recent New York trial of four New York City police officers accused of killing African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

The Diallo trial, he said, “was probably a nearly perfect example of a fair-and-just trial that moved along at a proper pace, where everything was done according to the books and where television forced the images and the information out to the public.”

“The idea that this is a bad concept because one very well-meaning moron let a long, famous case get out of control on the other side of the country is ridiculous,” he added.

Crocker Snyder agreed and pointed a finger at the defense bar, saying the only way the attorneys want cameras in the courtroom is if broadcast stations provide gavel-to-gavel coverage. That, she said, “is just never going to happen.”

Although continuous coverage might alleviate defense attorneys’ fears that sound bites and video snippets of their clients might be taken out of context, that still leaves those ever-present media pundits. Scheck had his own remedy for them — a solution that outraged Miller.

“The first thing that I asked for after the Simpson trial was a code of ethics for legal commentators,” said Scheck, who wrote one for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which was the only legal organization that passed a code.

“It said that its members should follow to a certain code of conduct when appearing as commentators on television shows,” Scheck said.

“Is it just television?’ Miller interrupted to ask.

“Yes, it is actually, though in theory it covers radio,” Scheck said.

“Which is even more outrageous,” Miller said, considering that such a code would target only broadcast coverage and not print. “The reason it is television is that it is the medium that has the most impact and does change behavior,” Scheck countered. “If you are a lawyer and you are going on a public forum where you are [commenting] on a case, you ought to be competent to do so. You shouldn’t be some kind of lawyer who isn’t experienced in the field pontificating. No. 2, you should be reasonably well informed about what you are saying. That seems like common sense. But believe me, that’s not how people are booking these shows.”

“But you’re changing the subject, because this has nothing to doing with a camera sitting in a courtroom showing the public what is going on,” Graham pointed out with frustration.

“It does, it does and unless you learn this lesson, you’re going to have trouble getting the cameras back in the courtroom,” Scheck replied.

The judge on the panel wanted evidence that anyone’s behavior is ever altered when cameras are present.

“I don’t think that there is any empirical proof that cameras change anyone’s behavior. This is the case that defense lawyers always make,” said Crocker Snyder.

But if behavior does change, Crier said it could be for the better. “Trial after trial after trial you watch on our air, [the judges] are quiet, calm, deliberate, sophisticated in their analysis,” she said.

But Scheck argued that televised images of suspects can have a damaging effect. “Don’t you think,” he asked Miller, “of all people, that image, that short, edited image of just a little snippet, has more impact than any article in the paper?”

“I agree with you, but you’ve got it backward,” Miller replied. “Those images are real and people can make their own decisions about them.”

One wing of the judiciary that remains above the fray when it comes to these issues is the Supreme Court, which doesn’t allow any cameras in any of its proceedings — ever.

Powell read two quotes from Supreme Court justices on the issue: “This is Justice Anthony Kennedy: ‘I’m delighted that I am less famous that Judge Ito.’ And here is Byron White: ‘I am very pleased to be able to walk around and very, very seldom am I recognized. It’s very selfish, I know.’

“So the justices seem more concerned with their private lives and their ability to do their work in secret than in the public’s right to know,” Powell said.

Will that idea — judges and lawyers working out of the public eye — or any of the other issues forced to the surface during the panel discussion change over the course of the next decade?

“In 10 years, hope springs eternal,” Miller said, emphasizing each word as he added: “I would like to see a camera mounted on the wall of every courtroom, without an operator … where any television station or streaming video could dial it up and cut to it to see what is going on in our public courtrooms and to broadcast what is going on in our public courtrooms to our public.”

Tags: , , ,