The case for cameras in court 

Most trials are not on camera. Should they be?

Last July, the state of Arkansas condemned a man to die. Few actions by government are weightier. But, while any kid could have recorded a prank on his cellphone that day and uploaded it quickly to YouTube, Jerry Lard's trial for killing a police officer was not electronically recorded. No one outside the courtroom saw — or will ever see — the drama that led the jury to reach its profound decision.

Circuit Judge Herbert W. Wright of Little Rock thinks that's for the best. After watching some high-profile trials on television, Wright has concluded that the presence of cameras in a courtroom serves no purpose "other than for people's entertainment." He worries that some judges and attorneys end up "performing" for cameras and being "more concerned about how their actions are going to be perceived than about what they're supposed to be doing."

There's also the matter of retaliation. Wright said that when he practiced as an attorney, he had first-hand experience with witnesses who wanted to cooperate in a trial but harbored the "legitimate concern" that, as they put it, if they testified, "These folks will hurt me."

In fairness, the judge acknowledged that cameras do have a potential upside. He said, "I think a lot of judges would behave better if cameras were on them." And in elections where voters face a "vacuum of information on judicial candidates," Wright said, "seeing how judges or attorneys handle themselves in court would be a benefit."

Judges fret perennially about declining confidence in courts, while citizens, faced with mounting evidence of wrongful convictions, want assurances that, should those occur, they have a way of learning about them — and seeing that they are corrected. Yet, newspapers are cutting back their coverage of courts, while Americans turn increasingly to electronic media for news. Live-streaming of court proceedings is being tried in some states, but most judges, like Wright, recoil from the conflicts they perceive between justice and having a camera in court.

As courts nationally wrestle with how to respond to modern media, Arkansas's case of the West Memphis Three has come to symbolize the civic importance of cameras to courtroom transparency. Because both trials in that case were recorded, events that unfolded in a nondescript Jonesboro court in 1994 have now been seen the world over. As a direct result, three men who are now widely presumed to be innocent were released from prison.

All odds were against such an outcome. Most courts in Arkansas, as elsewhere, ban cameras to this day. Though judges here may allow them, few do. Only a phenomenal set of circumstances brought to the world's attention the convictions of three teen-agers who, but for the cameras at their trials, would almost surely be forgotten today.

The crime (the murder of three children), the age of the accused (all teen-agers), and the alleged motive (Satanism) were sensational enough to attract a television network's attention. Working for HBO, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent eight months "embedding" themselves in East Arkansas, as Berlinger put it, in hopes of getting permission to film the two upcoming trials. The effort proved essential, because Circuit Judge David Burnett, who would officiate at the trials, told the filmmakers that he would not allow filming unless both prosecutors, all six defense lawyers and the families of both the victims and the defendants approved.

Berlinger and Sinofsky succeeded. But, Berlinger said, "Obviously, convincing all parties is a very high threshold ... and, in my opinion, allowing interested parties to determine public access is contrary to the public good gained by having cameras in the courtroom."

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