More Judges Say 'Cut!' to Cameras in Court
THE camera may not lie. But an increasing number of jurists from California to Massachusetts now argue television cameras have become an obstruction of justice in the courtroom, and should be removed.
In the electric aftermath of the O.J. Simpson case last November, many lawyers and judges argued that the benefits of cameras in the courtroom - such as civic participation and educational value - have been eclipsed by the potential for unfairness in celebrity trials.
Hours after the Simpson verdict, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) called for the removal of cameras in the state criminal courts. On Jan. 8, a California judicial council - the same body that ushered in courtroom cameras in 1984 - heard arguments about ending the practice or changing the rules that allow the broadcasts.
"It is time for the judiciary to declare that we are not part of the entertainment industry," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy, speaking on behalf of a group of independent judges.
Courtroom drama that is broadcast live certainly has riveted Americans in celebrity trials such as those of Mr. Simpson and William Kennedy Smith - and for bizarre crimes like those of the Menendez brothers, Lorena Bobbit, or New Hampshire teacher Pamela Smart, who conspired with her high-school student-lover to murder her husband.
Currently, 47 states allow cameras in the courts. The anticamera jurists, however, want to limit the broadcasts - or disallow them entirely, as is the case in federal courts.
In Massachusetts, fallout from the Simpson trial was felt immediately. An Essex County judge barred Court TV from televising the retrial of a man found guilty of murdering his wife, then stealing a plane and strafing the city of Boston with a handgun.
Currently, lawyers for John Salvi, the man accused of murdering several employees in two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., one year ago, say Mr. Salvi cannot get a fair trial if the same atmosphere surrounds his client as surrounded the Simpson trial. Jurors get distracted, and broadcasters try to out-sensationalize each other, says Mr. Salvi's lawyer, J.W. Carney.
IN the California case, news organizations argued that eliminating cameras would restrict the public's right to know.
"Flamboyant lawyers like Johnnie Cochrane and F. Lee Bailey behave the same way with or without cameras," says William Bennett Turner, lawyer for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Some experts argue the Simpson trial, with its length, its Hollywood locale and its "star" witnesses such as Kato Kaelin, should not be used as a typical example or test case. Of 25 recent studies of the effect of cameras on jurors, judges, and witnesses, 24 concluded that the camera did not present a significant problem.