Cameras in the Courtroom
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The sixth amendment of the constitution of the United States says, ???those accused of crimes have the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed??? (United States Constitution Amendment 6). The amendment does not make any mention of how the public trial will be presented to its citizens. In the almost 300 years since this amendment was made there have been advancements in how the public receives information on trials. Today one can simply turn on the television and watch events in the courtroom take place right before their very eyes. Even though the public deserves to know what is going on, it is a bad idea to have television cameras in the courtroom because it can compromise the constitutional right to a fair trial, and the trial proceedings.
According to the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court (2005), the controversy over the use of news cameras in courtrooms has persisted for 70 years (para. 1). Prior to the television reports of modern day, citizens turned to the newspaper and radio for news. Cameras were introduced in 1935, and the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann (the man found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh??™s son) that the use of cameras was found to be a distracting presence. Lassiter (1995) ???noted that the media attention was intense, and the judge ultimately barred cameras from the courtroom because of the broadcast media??™s chaotic coverage.???
30 years after this landmark case, the debate continued. In 1965 the Supreme Court reversed a criminal conviction in the state-level case of Estes v. Texas, finding that televising the proceedings had deprived the defendant of a fair trial (Cameras in the Courts 2002). In 1981 another case in regard to the televising of trials came to the Supreme Court. The case of Chandler vs. Florida produced a ruling in favor of broadcast media.
Taking advantage of the Chandler vs. Florida ruling, and public interest; in July of 1991, Courtroom Television was launched. The channels programming consisted entirely of trials. In 2003 the channel had 70 million subscribers, and in that same year all 50 states now allowed the televising of courtroom proceedings (Mather, Alexander para. 4). Now in addition to Court TV, other major cable networks air trial coverage. As channels battle for the highest ratings, there is little attention paid to what constitutional rights are at stake by allowing cameras in the courtroom.
The Constitution of the United States was created to protect the rights of its citizens. The sixth amendment of the constitution is what becomes compromised by the televising of court proceedings. The sixth amendment guarantees a defendant a fair and public trial. The presence of television cameras during trial proceedings compromises that right. Having a fair trial depends on detached neutrality; however neutrality is disrupted when one side plays to the camera either inside or outside the courtoom (Lassiter 1995 para. 27).
One argument that those in favor of television in courtroom present against the sixth amendment, is its inclusion of public trial. Those in favor of television coverage argue that including television coverage is simply a way of making the trial public. Those opposed to having television present, say that the constitutional right to due process and a fair trial override the need for court proceedings to be made public (Camera??™s in the Courts 2002). According to Lassiter (1995) the debate on the interplay between the media and the government goes back to the nation??™s founders, when print, not television, was the dominant means of publicity.
Those that support the broadcast of trials refer to the First Ammendment and the argument that the public has a right to know what goes on in a courtroom (Lassiter, para. 7). One needs to look back to the Sixth amendment. This amendment to the constitution protects fairness and due process in legal proceedings, and the importance of such rights supersedes the need to bring information from trials to the public (???Camera??™s in the Courts 2002).
The information provided to the public via television, jeopardizes more than the constitutional rights of its defendant. The trial itself can become altered due to the coverage displayed on television. One certain result of televising real courtroom drama will be legal challenges to the fairness of the trial based on the presence of cameras (Lassiter 1995 para. 15) Lawyers, witnesses, judges, and jurors can be profoundly affected by the knowledge that they are being recorded and televised (Camera??™s in the Courts 2002). Court proceedings need to be able to be conducted without those involved being influenced. They (lawyers, witnesses, judges, and jurors) may neglect fairness and legal responsibility as a result of being distracted, intimidated or otherwise influenced by the camera (Camera??™s in Courts 2002).
A jury is a very important part of a trial where there cannot be any influence placed on the jurors. The jury is according to the sixth amendment supposed to be ???an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed??? (United States Constitution Ammendment 6). Television inside the courtroom can affect the jury from being impartial. The notoriety of a case, made evident by television coverage, can alter the jury??™s determinative process (Lassiter 1995 para. 9). U.S District Judge Edward Harrington of Boston said: I am disinclined to allow cameras into the courtroom because it lets jurors know that this is an unusual, that is, a celebrated, case. And when jurors are asked to make a judgment in an ordinary case, that is a heavy responsibility. When they are asked to make a judgment in a celebrated case, I think that puts undue pressure on them and it might well distort the verdict (Lassiter 1995).
Besides jurors, some trials require the need for witnesses to be called. Cameras may change the behavior in a person whom has been called to testify in a trial, they can feel self-conscious in their presence (Cameras in Courts 2002). There is too much at stake to take the risk of having trial participants think about the possibility of celebrity attached to being involved in a case. Lassiter points out that the testimony of witnesses who know that they are going to be on television believe that they are there less for the value of justice, and more for the entertainment value (Camera??™s in the Courtroom 1995). To play into the entertainment aspect witnesses may alter their stories to appeal more to the general audience and paying media. This is a for-in of technological witness tampering (Lassiter 1995).
Witnesses are not the only participants of a trial that can affect the outcome by altering their performance. Judges and lawyers can also behave differently because of cameras. With lawyers the risk is that lawyers direct at least part of their case to the television audience instead of giving their full attention to the judge and jury (Lassiter 1995). In cases where a jury is not needed, the verdict or decision-making is made by the judge assigned to the case. The ruling that a judge makes on a case, may not be what the judge believes. The judge may be tempted to rule in favor of what the public opinion on the case has become.
Public opinion provided courtesy of the television media should not be a worry or concern among trial participants; however there is profit to be made off of the trials by the media, which can lure in participants and further damage a case. The defense attorney in the William Kennedy Smith date rape trial successfully impeached the credibility of a close friend of the alleged victim because she sold her account about the accuser to a tabloid television show (Lassiter 1995). This trial would be the first of many blockbusters that Court TV would be famous for airing. William Kennedy Smith was found not guilty of the rape charges, but many argue that the verdict could have been different if the media coverage had not been so intense. One of the more notorious intensely covered trials is that of O.J Simpson.
The Simpson trial set the stage for how many trials would be covered in years to follow. The trial also set the stage for the lawyers to provide a performance of their own. Today lawyers direct at least part of their case to the television audience instead of giving their full attention to the judge and jury. The focus needs to remain on what is happening inside the courtroom, not what others want to see happening in the courtroom. The impartial jury that the defendant is entitled to is what matters. In the O.J Simpson case, an unseemly battle emerged between opposing counsel to spin their versions of the case before the public, rather than giving their undivided attention to the fact finder at trial (Lassiter 1995).
As long as cameras continue to take a seat in the courtroom, the constitutional right to a fair trial remains compromised. When thinking about how much of a right the public has to know about the trial consider what attorney Jack Litman has said on the subject: We do not want the sacred area of the courtroom, which is by definition solemn, tedious and dignified, to be overrun by a system whose values are based on ratings, entertainment value and profit. And I fear, when you put the camera under the tent of an American institution you do more than illuminate it. You profoundly change that institution (Camera??™s in the Courts 2002).
Lassiter, Christo (March 1, 1995) Cameras in the Courtroom A Fair Trial is at Stake.
The Free Library. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Cameras in the courtroom A fair trial is at stake-a016995249
Cameras in the Courts (2007, May 15) New York Times, Retrieved April 11th, 2009 from MasterFILE Premier database
Lynn Mather, S.L Alexander ???Cameras in Courtrooms??? The Oxford Companion to the Supreme
Court of the United States. Kermit L. Hall. Oxford University Press retrieved
April 9th, 2009 from www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.htmlsubview=main&entry=t184.e0160