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Judge Bars Television Cameras From Courtroom for Menendez Retrial : Ruling: Although Simpson case is not mentioned, decision is seen as backlash to controversy over media coverage it received.

October 07, 1995|ANN W. O'NEILL and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Courtroom junkies who had hoped that the saga of Erik and Lyle Menendez would fill the void after the O.J. Simpson trial were left in the dark Friday when a Van Nuys judge barred television cameras from the courtroom for the brothers' retrial.

In a brief ruling, Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg said that keeping the cameras out will reduce the risk of the unsequestered jurors and alternates being tainted by exposure to media accounts of the trial.

"The court concludes that the enduring intensity of interest in this case immeasurably increases the likelihood that jurors will be exposed to potentially prejudicial electronic media coverage about this case outside the courtroom," Weisberg wrote in his ruling.

Although Weisberg made no mention of the Simpson case, legal experts said the decision reflects a general backlash regarding the controversy over televising the Simpson trial.

"I am not surprised judges are hesitant to allow cameras," said prominent defense attorney Gerald Chaleff, who once represented one of the Menendez brothers. "I think it's because of the many problems perceived by those in and outside the criminal justice system with the Simpson case, not a few of which have been blamed on cameras in the courtroom."

Forty-seven states allow televised coverage of court proceedings, but the rules of that coverage vary widely from state to state. Judges have excluded television cameras in the courtrooms for the trials of Susan Smith and rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg, and for the man accused of killing Polly Klaas. Gov. Pete Wilson has called for a ban on cameras in the courtroom and legislation has been proposed to bar cameras.

Under California Court Rule 980, judges have discretion to allow or exclude cameras from their courtrooms. In his ruling, Weisberg concluded that denying television coverage of the courtroom proceedings will best protect the rights of the defendants, the dignity of the court and the orderliness of the proceedings.

Weisberg noted that television coverage of the first trial of the Menendez brothers two years ago had a "profound and pervasive" impact and left lasting visual impressions on potential jurors questioned for the retrial. The judge granted the request by lawyers for Lyle Menendez to keep the television cameras out. The ruling does not affect still cameras.

Attorneys for Lyle Menendez were pleased with the ruling. "I truly hope that it can be tried like a regular murder case because that's the best way we can get justice," said Deputy Public Defender Charles Gessler, who represents Lyle Menendez.

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Before the first trial, Weisberg had also ruled there would be no cameras in the courtroom.

His concern then was that the commotion associated with a camera operator--and a natural curiosity about the camera's focus--would distract jurors. Court TV suggested a small camera that could be mounted high on a wall in a back corner of the courtroom and operated by remote control.

After seeing a demonstration, Weisberg allowed it in the courtroom for the first trial.

Erik and Lyle Menendez, now 24 and 27, respectively, are charged with murder in the 1989 shotgun slaying of their wealthy parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, at the family's Beverly Hills mansion. Opening statements are scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The brothers, who say they killed out of fear for their lives after years of sexual and psychological abuse, became pop-culture icons when Court TV carried live coverage of their first trial, which ended with juries for both brothers deadlocked between murder and manslaughter convictions in 1994.

But earlier this week, Gessler argued that Lyle Menendez's right to a fair trial would be jeopardized by cameras that would provide television viewers with "free entertainment" while reminding jurors of the public pressure to return murder convictions against the brothers.

Gessler also had argued that pro-defense witnesses might be reluctant to come forward to testify, fearing they would be stigmatized after appearing on national television for unpopular defendants.

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Craig Hume, news director at KTLA-TV Channel 5, which reportedly had planned live coverage each morning, said he is very disappointed by Weisberg's ruling. "His decision is just another development in what seems to be a very ominous trend for cameras in courtrooms," he said.

Attorney Kelli Sager, who represented the media during the Simpson trial, had argued in hearings before Weisberg that TV coverage of court proceedings is educational, and that public access to court proceedings is enhanced by the camera's presence.

Sager, representing Court TV and the Radio and Television News Assn. of Southern California, said her clients had not decided whether to challenge Weisberg's ruling in the state Court of Appeals.

"I'm certainly hearing from a lot of judges that they will be more reluctant to allow cameras because of what they perceive to be too much attention paid to the Simpson case," Sager said Friday. "Unfortunately, none of the criticism had anything to do with the camera in the court. It all had to do with media coverage outside the courtroom."

But other legal experts said that such an argument is difficult to justify in cases that are more like soap operas than weighty public policy issues.

"Cases that have become high profile because of their soap opera value--such as the Menendez trial--do not need to be televised," said UCLA law professor Peter Arenella. "The public is not getting an education about how the system usually functions in such cases and the camera changes the behavior and pace of such trials as lawyers make appeals to the court of public opinion watching them at home."

Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson contributed to this story.

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