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Ruling lets TV eye keep peering into courtrooms

The US Supreme Court has kept the door open to cameras in courtrooms in a decision that allows states to continue experimenting with televised trials. The justices ruled Jan. 26 that the presence of a TV camera in a courtroom does not automatically deprive a defendant of his right to a fair trial. The 8 -to-0 decision upheld an experiment in Florida, which has been permitting cameras and microphones in courtrooms on a limited basis since 1975.

Members of the print and broadcast media in the United States have sought for years to win such courtroom access. Although this high court decision did not deal directly with that free-press issue, it will be seen as a step toward opening courtrooms to reporters who do not rely on note pad and pencil.

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Although some 28 states have experimented with cameras in courtrooms, Florida is one of the few that allows them even over objections by defendants.

In the Supreme Court case, two former Miami Beach policemen, Noel Chandler and Robert Granger, were convicted of burglarizing a well-known Miami Beach restaurant. Over their objections, the highly publicized trial was filmed and segments later broadcast over television.

The two ex-policemen charged that the very presence of the cameras prejudiced the jury. Organizations including the American Bar Association and the American College of Trial Lawyers have also taken a stand against the cameras.

But Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, speaking for the high court, said that opponents offered no clear proof that the "mere presence of photographic and recording equipment and the knowledge that the event would be broadcast" affected witnesses or other participants in any particular way.

The chief justice said that without such evidence, the high court could not forbid states from experimenting with cameras. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens did not participate; no reason was given.

The ruling has the effect of modifying a 1965 Supreme Court decision that threw out the televised trial of convicted swindler Billie Sol Estes. In that trial, videotaping was still in its infant stages -- wires, distracting lights, and cumbersome equipment were said to have interfered with the trial.

But Chief Justice Burger pointed out that technical advances have eliminated those obstacles. The Florida law permits only one TV camera in a fixed position and no artificial lighting. Moreover, the judge can decide to exclude any witness from television coverage, and the jury is not allowed to be filmed.

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In his opinion, the chief justice said that the court was not actually overruling the 1965 Estes case, since that earlier decision did not say that "all photographic or broadcast coverage of criminal trials" is a denial of due process. He interpreted the 1965 ruling as narrowly applying to the Estes trial itself, and further stated that television cameras could be found to be damaging in individual cases in the future.

The decision also calls for gathering more data on the effects of cameras.

Said Chief Justice Burger, "Dangers lurk in this as in most experiments, but unless we were to conclude that television coverage under all conditions is prohibited by the Constitution, the states must be free to experiment."

David R. Brink, president-elect of the American Bar Association, said that his organization had, on a close vote, opposed a "blanket rule that cameras should be allowed" if all parties to a trial consent. But he added that the favors experimentation to obtain more data on the effec ts of cameras.

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