By: M.L. Stein
Judge Lance Ito rules that a pool camera be present during
the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, but its presence during
preliminary hearings on DNA evidence is still up in the air sp.
THE MEDIA BREATHED a collective sigh of relief when Judge Lance Ito ruled Nov. 7 that a pool camera could stay in the Los Angeles courtroom where O.J. Simpson is being tried on a double murder charge.
However, the question of whether the Court TV camera can remain during preliminary proceedings involving the admission of prosecution DNA evidence remained in doubt.
The court’s main ruling was contingent upon the installation of an unobtrusive, remote-controlled camera that presumably would be less intimidating to witnesses. The camera operator would be stationed outside the courtroom.
Ito’s decision came after several lawyers representing the media and the American Civil Liberties Union pleaded for retention in the interests of a public trial.
Both the prosecution and the defense supported those arguments, although the defense posed some objections.
Defense attorneys Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran said they would oppose camera recording of preliminary motions on DNA and possibly other matters. The trial itself is expected to get under way in January.
Stacked behind Ito in the courtroom were 21 boxes, which, the judge said, contained more than 12,000 letters regarding the trial, the “overwhelming number” of which asked that he pull the plug on the courtroom TV camera.
The letters were inspired by syndicated columnist Mike Royko, who suggested that his readers write to Ito if they objected to televised coverage of the trial.
Last September 30, Ito warned he was considering removing the cameras after a Los Angeles television station broadcast an allegedly erroneous story concerning DNA evidence, and a photographer took photos of jurors in the court building.
Attorney Kelli Sager, who argued on behalf of a variety of media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Gannett Co., CBS, NBC, City News Service, Copley Press, Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said her clients were “vitally interested in continuing electronic coverage of these proceedings.”
Noting that, under both state and federal law, Ito can permit camera coverage law unless it would jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial, Sager contended that “there is no realistic chance” that this would happen in the Simpson trial. “On the flip side, there is a tremendous public interest in the case,” she added.
Sager argued that the DNA and other leaks to the media, which caused Ito to consider banning courtroom television, “have nothing to do with the cameras being in the courtroom,” and that the judge’s concerns would not be relieved by the removal of the cameras. A pool still photographer also is allowed to shoot in the courtroom.
If anything, the lawyer said, Ito’s concerns might be exacerbated if the cameras are prohibited, “as news media might turn to other areas rather than covering the court proceedings.”
Sager termed the courtroom TV camera “the most accurate source of information the public may have” of the trial.
When Ito pointed to the boxes of letters, saying only 800 of them favored courtroom TV, the lawyer responded by saying, “My clients would be happy to organize a letter-writing campaign if that is the way the court were to decide issues in this case . . . . I would urge the court not to make rulings based on public opinion. If 20,000 people wrote and said the DNA evidence should come in, I’m sure the court would not make an opinion based on the fact that the public has spoken.”
Sager further argued that the TV camera should remain for the preliminary motions as well as for the trial. She said print journalists would be especially hard hit by its removal, since many of them rely on watching proceedings on pressroom monitors due to the limited media seating in the courtroom.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent New York First Amendment attorney, who represented Court TV, said, “In a sense, I speak for the camera itself, and the camera pleads absolutely ? 100% ? not guilty. It didn’t do anything wrong or show anything wrong. It hasn’t shown anything outside the courtroom or violated any court rule.”
Abrams added that nothing harmful has happened in the presence of the camera. “The camera has not been the problem and will not be the problem,” he said.
ACLU attorney Douglas Mirell supported media lawyers’ efforts to keep the camera running during the actual trial but agreed with the defense, which wants to bar it during the preliminary stage.
Ito apparently will rule on that issue at a later date after arguments.
?( Lance Ito) [Photo]