Media In The Courtroom

By: Amber Wetzel

A cornerstone of the American judicial system is the accused’s right to a speedy and public trial, in front of a jury of the accused’s peers.  This is a loaded statement.  How quick must a trial start to be speedy? Who exactly are one’s peers? And what does it mean to have a public trial? In an era when news and information is available instantly at our fingertips, there is much debate surrounding just how public trials should be.  Different courts, judges, and legislators have different opinions on where the “do not cross” line should be placed for the media.

On July 26, 2013, Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jane Roush granted a motion by local media outlets, allowing still and video cameras in the back of the courtroom for an up-coming murder trial for a case from 2010.  This decision does not appear to be a national news sensation, and it is doubtful that there will be thousands of people watching a live stream of the trial. This decision comes fresh off the tail of the George Zimmerman verdict, and many are wondering if cameras in the courtroom are really a good idea.

Proponents of cameras in the courtroom range from concerned citizens, to political bloggers, to senators.  In June 2013 Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill that would allow cameras in the Supreme Court, for all court sessions that are open to the public.  The bill includes a provision that permits a majority of the justices to vote out the cameras if the media presence would violate the rights of a party to the case. This is not the first attempt by Congress to put cameras in the courtroom, in an attempt to create more “accountability.”  Congress and other supports want a more formal way to hold judges responsible for the decisions made throughout a case, and they want more insight into why rulings go one way over another.  Many other people, including current and former justices, believe that cameras will take away from the sincerity of the argument, and put too much focus on sound bites and performances as opposed to genuine legal arguments.

While it is hard to say if there would be more accountability if cameras were put into the Supreme Court, the recent trials of Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, and George Zimmerman are examples of what happens when there is intense media coverage of high profile cases.  Everyone with access to a television or internet connection suddenly believes they are an expert in all areas of criminology, trial advocacy, and statutory interpretation. Average people can sit around and watch other average people be accused of crimes, or testify in trials.  Unfortunately, most criminal cases that become media sensations are emotional; the raw emotion is what actually makes these cases a sensation.  That same emotional charge infects the people watching.  The more emotional the viewers become, the more the conversation turns away from an analysis of the actual law.  During the Casey Anthony trial, more conversation was focused on how bad of a mother she was, and not the evidence being presented, or the legal burdens to be met.

In the George Zimmerman trial, he death of Trayvon Martin divided the nation.  Some were outraged by what they saw as racism, some were critical of the “bad” lawyering, and others were heartbroken at the murder of a child.  The live feed of the trial sparked conversations about bad knock knock jokes, bad laws, bad juries, and unfortunately, bad witnesses. One thing missing from all this controversy was a discussion of the accountability that cameras are supposed to create.  Instead, the cameras allowed Rachel Jeantel to be ridiculed and mocked by her peers.  For a brief time, it felt like Rachel, and not George Zimmerman was on trial, with people criticizing everything from the way she talked to the way she looked.  There was no real accountability, because the focus was on the wrong things.  Conversation did not focus on rulings made by the judge, or evidence reform, or enforcement of legal or judicial ethics.  At the conclusion of the trial, when the jury read the verdict, the commentators and the public made their statements, pointed the finger at who failed, and passed their own judgments.  George Zimmerman evaded prison in exchange for public shame; the laws and practices that caused this result remain unchanged.

So where is the accountability that these cameras supposedly bring? The truth is, in criminal cases that capture the country’s attention, there is none.  We live with crime every single day.  The crimes that make people pause and pay attention are the ones that rope people in emotionally.  There is no way that cameras are going to change the way the juries react to evidence.  It is also not likely that cameras inside the Supreme Court will have an impact on its decisions.  The cases that are actually heard by the Court are ones that people feel passionately about or are emotionally invested in.  The Justices should base their decisions on legal arguments, not public opinion.  Although this is true of all judges, it is especially true for the Supreme Court, where judges are appointed for a life term and are charged with being a neutral body in the face of public outcry.  If anything, the cameras will likely add fuel to the fire inside the viewers, while not changing any of the outcomes.

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