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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

"My concern for the defendant's right to privacy is the basis" for his policy, Storch said. Defendants, especially those in custody, "are in a situation over which they have no control," Storch said. He said he bars cameras if the defense or prosecution objects to them, and no reason has to be given for the objection.

Maintaining the court's dignity is another reason to bar photography, Storch said.

"I think it demeans the atmosphere of the courtroom," he said. "The tendency is to promote a carnival atmosphere. . . . Still cameras and television cameras detract from the seriousness of the proceedings."

Concern about cameras disrupting a court proceeding dates to the 1935 trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the Lindbergh baby kidnaping. Extensive media coverage of the case prompted the American Bar Assn. to adopt a rule recommending that no cameras or broadcasting equipment be allowed in court.

Some jurisdictions, however, ignored the recommendation. Then, in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Texas fraud conviction of Billie Sol Estes because of television coverage. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that television coverage was likely to prejudice jurors and was "inherently lacking in due process."

In subsequent years, however, improved technology made still cameras and television equipment smaller, quieter and less intrusive. Florida conducted a one-year experiment allowing cameras in the courts, and in 1981 the high court reversed itself. Unanimously upholding the conviction of two Florida burglary suspects, the court freed the states to set their own rules on camera coverage.

"The risk of juror prejudice is present in any publication of a trial," the 1981 ruling said. The legal remedy, the court said, was for the defendant to demonstrate that media coverage had compromised the ability of his particular jury to be fair.

That sounds fine on paper, Farley said, but in practice it is all but impossible to prove such prejudice, especially before a trial.

"I would have to come before the court and say that statistics show that 99% of the people in this county read such-and-such a paper, and that 80% of the jury pool saw a particular photo," she said. "Then I'd have to have a psychiatrist testify that 75% of the people will develop a negative imagery as the result of seeing this person in jail blues.

"That is the kind of testimony you're going to need. It's cost-prohibitive, and it may not exist."

Municipal Judge Ken W. Riley agreed that proving such prejudice is "a pretty heavy burden" for the defense.

But "in the absence of a strong showing of prejudice, you as the press have a right to be there, and to take pictures if you want to," Riley said. He said that in reviewing convictions, appeal courts have given little weight to claims that publicity prejudiced a jury.

Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren sees a danger in barring cameras from the courtroom.

"Anything that deprives the public of the opportunity to witness a public trial undermines the system itself," Perren said. "Anything that smacks of hiding, withholding or secreting something suggests nefarious doings in the courthouse."

Judge Klopfer acknowledged that in highly publicized cases, jury selection is more difficult.

"It will generally take a longer time to select a jury, and it will take a larger pool of prospective jurors," Klopfer said.

"But you have to keep that in perspective. The fair trial is a very precious and important right . . . but the public's right to know is also a very cherished and important right.

"Look at the alternative," Klopfer said. "In various countries, people are taken off in the night by police and nobody knows what happens to them."

As a Municipal Court judge, Klopfer often presides at arraignments and preliminary hearings that occur in the early stages of a criminal case. Occasionally, the victim or another witness has not yet identified the suspect in a lineup. In such cases, Klopfer and other Municipal Court judges said they will ban cameras to prevent the witness from being influenced by a published photo.

Bradbury said his deputies sometimes ask a judge not to allow photos of a victim or witness.

"For example, we don't want rape victims or child molestation victims photographed," he said, adding that some gang cases also raise concerns. "The court typically can fashion an order that properly balances the public's right to know with the interests of the criminal justice system."

Some judges said they share Storch's concern about cameras disrupting the courtroom. On several occasions in the past year, judges have signaled photographers to stop shooting when, in the judges' opinion, they had taken enough shots and were becoming a distraction.

"All of the judges try to maintain a certain dignity to the proceedings," Jones said. "But we're all different in assessing what that dignity is."

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