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Court Fight Erupts Over Bid to Put Jury Talks on Camera

A Texas judge wants 'Frontline' to tape deliberations in a death penalty trial. Prosecutors are opposed to the idea.

November 26, 2002|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — It is an unprecedented courtroom experiment that can be seen as either an exercise in public service television or an invasion of juror privacy: A Texas judge wants to let filmmakers videotape deliberations in a death penalty case here.

Harris County prosecutors are having none of it, objecting to state District Judge Ted Poe's decision to allow cameras from PBS' "Frontline" to roll as jurors consider the fate of 17-year-old Cedric Harrison, accused of fatally shooting a man during a carjacking in June.

Late Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals intervened, giving Poe until next week to explain why scenes from the jury room -- a chamber closed by tradition, not Texas law -- should be part of next year's TV lineup.

"He thought our criminal justice system benefited from people seeing how it works," said Chip Babcock, who is representing Poe before the criminal appeals court. "Jurors will be wrestling with literally a life-and-death issue.... It will be extraordinarily interesting to see."

Harrison supports the idea, and his defense attorneys said the filming could help guarantee a fair trial.

But prosecutors argue that cameras will discourage juror candor during the give-and-take of deliberations. "We don't try these cases for the spectacle or for people's entertainment," Harris County Dist. Atty. Chuck Rosenthal has said.

Under Poe's plan, an unobtrusive remote camera would be installed in the ceiling of the jury room. Videotape would be reviewed and kept by the court until the trial is over.

Potential jurors who object to the cameras would not have to serve -- but that in itself is problematic, said Neil C. McCabe, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.

"The mere fact that a person doesn't like the idea of engaging in a media experiment that the judge set up is not a reason to kick the person off the jury," McCabe said. "Jurors should not be dismissed because they don't want to play his game."

Still, if prosecutors present a strong case, cameras won't change the trial outcome, he said.

"We hand out death penalties like party favors here," said McCabe, referring to Houston's reputation for sending more prisoners to death row than any other city in the country.

"If this is something that cries out for the death penalty anyway, you can expect the jury to give it."

Poe, a former prosecutor with 21 years on the bench, is well-known here for his quirky -- and sometimes controversial -- rulings.

He has ordered several convicts to wear signs proclaiming their crime. Two men found guilty of spousal abuse had to apologize in front of the Family Law Center downtown as their wives watched and a crowd gathered.

Poe's latest experiment could be viewed as "no more than the people's right to be informed," said T. Gerald Treece, another professor at the South Texas College of Law. "One could argue that the educational value outweighs potential problems.

"But with jury deliberation, you go through this terrible ordeal, and come out with justice because people are willing to hang in there with what they believe in."

Treece worries that some jurors may sit quietly "for fear of being embarrassed in front of the cameras." Then there are the showboating jurors, "people wanting to be on juries so their little sermonettes can be recorded for posterity. Whether they grandstand or feel inhibited," Treece said, "there are two extremes -- and both of them are bad."

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