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Cameras in the Court Are Again Focus of Debate : Trials: Most Ventura County judges routinely allow media photography, but some attorneys say it can interfere with defendants' right to an impartial jury.

November 03, 1991|GARY GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With every click of the shutter, Jean L. Farley grew angrier.

A Ventura County judge had permitted two newspaper photographers and a television crew to take courtroom photos of her client, a young Mexican woman accused of killing her newborn son.

"The image that's portrayed is one of a guilty person in shackles and jail clothing," said Farley, Ventura County assistant public defender. She said the photos could prevent her client from getting a fair trial by prejudicing potential jurors.

But Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones denied Farley's plea to stop the photographers during a hearing Oct. 25.

"I think the public has a legitimate interest in seeing and hearing what goes on in court," Jones said later.

As the Florida rape trial of William Kennedy Smith began to unfold last week on television, a decades-long debate resumed over cameras in the courtroom. In Ventura County, the public defender's office and several private defense attorneys say they fear that cameras--allowed in California courts since 1984--can unfairly hurt a defendant.

But many judges and prosecutors as well as other defense lawyers disagree. Among them is Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who says he generally favors camera coverage of court proceedings to enhance public understanding of the criminal justice system.

"I think a photo adds to the story," he said. "It makes it come alive for the public."

Bradbury discounts the notion that photos prejudice potential jurors.

"I don't think the public jumps to the conclusion that an arrest means a person is automatically guilty," he said.

The county's judges--with one notable exception--said they usually approve media requests for photo coverage in the belief that the public has a right to see, not just read about, what goes on in court.

"The press stands in the shoes of the public," Municipal Court Judge Barry B. Klopfer said. "The average man on the street has better things to do than search through courtrooms. He looks to the media to find out what's important in the legal system."

And the Superior Court's presiding judge, Edwin M. Osborne, said he has sensed none of the prejudicial effects cited by opponents of courtroom photography.

"I just haven't seen it in fact be a problem," Osborne said. "The fact of the matter is, when you poll prospective jurors, the overwhelming majority will not recognize anybody in the courtroom no matter how many times one or more of the people have had their face on the front page of the newspaper or on TV."

But several Ventura County defense attorneys insist that cameras can undermine a defendant's rights, both before and during a trial.

"We're concerned about the jury being distracted from its fact-finding mission," said Duane Dammeyer, another assistant public defender. "We're concerned about witnesses 'performing' as opposed to telling what really happened."

In past cases, Farley said, she has had to disqualify potentially good jurors because they were tainted by published photos of the defendant.

She said such photos discriminate against poor clients, such as Maria Francisca Jimenez Sanchez, the farm worker accused of killing her newborn son by dumping him into a portable toilet.

"They have the bailiff in uniform standing next to her, making her look like some kind of heinous criminal, when in fact all that is happening is she doesn't have $250,000 to bail out," Farley said. If Sanchez were not in custody and wore street clothes to court appearances, Farley said, the photos would not be as prejudicial.

Farley and other attorneys said courtroom photos can ruin people even if they are eventually acquitted.

But that argument carries little weight with Julie Scopazzi, assignment editor for KEYT news in Santa Barbara.

"If it turns out they are falsely accused, we will cover that, too," Scopazzi said. "Viewers have a right to see who you're talking about."

When a judge denies camera coverage, Scopazzi said, it often forces her news crews to chase people down hallways to get the footage they need.

"It makes us feel like the animals everyone accuses us of being," she said. "But we'll do what we have to do to get the pictures. Like it or not, it's TV. You have to have pictures."

Bob Carey, director of photography for The Times' Ventura County Edition, said he believes it is extremely unlikely that photos of a defendant can compromise fair-trial rights.

"I think the defense attorneys are grasping at straws," Carey said. "They are trying to find technicalities that might get a conviction overturned."

He said most news photographers dislike courtroom assignments because bad lighting and awkward camera angles often make for poor photos. But he believes photo coverage is important.

"I think taxpayers, and readers, are worried about crime," Carey said. "A lot of them are worried about what's going on in the criminal justice system."

The only Ventura County judge who routinely denies media requests to photograph court proceedings is Lawrence Storch, the Superior Court's senior judge.

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