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franklin county times

The pros and cons of courtroom cameras

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
Dec. 26, 2002
I am of two minds about the recommendations released Friday of what has been commonly referred to as the "Cameras in the Courtroom Committee."
The group included Supreme, Circuit, Chancery, County and Justice court judges. The media were represented by two television news directors from Jackson. After public meetings in five Mississippi cities, including Meridian, the committee has proposed the following guidelines:
Television and still cameras would be allowed in hearings and trials, but the judge would have the authority to deny or limit photographing certain kinds of witnesses like victims of sex crimes, police informants, undercover cops and juveniles.
Trial judges could exclude cameras in other situations, but would have to justify it under the guidelines and for the record.
Also excluded would be pictures of jurors and videotape of courtroom discussions between judges and attorneys regarding the admissibility of disputed evidence or testimony.
Much of what goes on in "family courts" would be off limits. This includes divorce, child custody, adoption, paternity, commitment, termination of parental rights and actions for protection from domestic abuse. An exception is divorce actions that do not involve children, but in which there is a large public interest.
The people's business
I applaud the committee for affirming that the people should have access to the people's business. The judicial system belongs to the citizens of Mississippi. They own the courthouses and they pay the salaries of everyone who works there. It is their right to know, and see, what goes on in courthouses.
Of course, there is nothing now prohibiting them from attending a trial or hearing, but the practicalities of working for a living prevent most people from doing it.
It was nice to see that the guidelines, for the most part, conform to the common sense news judgment of most members of the media. Who, after all, would want to publish, or broadcast, pictures of a 6-year-old rape victim testifying?
And, while judges would have the authority to exclude cameras for reasons not specifically set out in the guidelines, jurisdictions with judges who would abuse that discretion have bigger problems than cameras in the courtroom.
Blind justice
As a daily newspaper's managing editor, it makes me feel a little strange to say this, but I also think the presence of cameras in the courtroom will have a negative impact on the ability of the system to deliver a fair trial.
I have testified once, in another Circuit Court, and it was stressful even though there were no cameras and I had done nothing wrong.
I had a similar reaction when the Courts and the Media Committee visited Meridian.
The meeting was held in the Lauderdale County Courthouse's second-floor courtroom. The newspaper and both local television stations had cameras there. I am a modest person, and the presence of cameras and the possibility I might be on the 6 o'clock news made me uncomfortable. It changed what I said and how I said it.
Imagine that I am a witness for the prosecution or the defense in a murder trial and there's a camera in the courtroom. You now have a witness whose anxiety is heightened, who doesn't say what she meant to say, and who probably makes a bad impression on the jury.
This is not good.
Let's get it in context
In my opinion, cameras in courtrooms are novelty items. I'm not convinced their presence will improve coverage or contribute to readers' or viewers' understanding of crime or the judicial system. And that, to me, is the point.
It would be interesting for television viewers to see key testimony, but predicting when that testimony will happen is, at best, an educated guess.
I would like to have a camera in the courtroom as some jury verdicts are read, but it's not possible to know when that moment will happen, either.
I do most of The Meridian Star's courthouse coverage, and I can think of times when a courthouse image took my breath away, but it's not like I could see it coming and assign a photographer to take a picture of it. It was there for an instant and then gone.
The truth is that courthouses are where stories end not where they begin.
As reporters, we should cover what happens in courtrooms, but we should not forget that the story is always about real people who live out in the world.
Let's make sure we spend some time talking to them about what happened, why it happened and how it affected their lives. Let's try to get a better sampling of stories large and small, criminal and civil, and explain laws and procedures along the way.
Let's get it in context.
Two last notes
Mea culpa: Last week, I reported that a Lauderdale County jailer had been indicted. Meiko Chantrell Gabriel worked at the jail for only a short period in 2000; the mug shot on her indictment showed her in uniform because it was taken during that period and was still in the system.
Unsolved murder: I spent some time Thursday with Nancy Scheber's mother. Scheber was murdered five years ago, and the case has never been solved. I'm still thinking about what she said and will be writing about it in next week's column.

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