A Loss of Refinement in the Courtroom

March 30, 1994|By NEIL A. GRAUER

The General Assembly may soon lift the ban on cameras in Maryland's criminal courts, at last allowing television's all-seeing eye to scan the occasional scenes of high drama there as in the criminal courtrooms of all but three other states.

Maybe this is progress. And maybe it isn't.

Putting TV cameras in Maryland's criminal courts would push ever closer to extinction one of the few exemplars of refinement in such proceedings: the courtroom artist.

Cameras were not always banned from courtrooms of Maryland or elsewhere. In 1912, an enterprising London newspaper photographer snapped a picture inside the Old Bailey as the death sentence was being imposed on Frederick Seddon, a landlord convicted of poisoning a lady lodger. Photographers were allowed into Baltimore's courthouse to take pictures of jury selection during the 1922 trial of Walter Socolow and Jack Hart for a payroll robbery and murder. Newsreel and newspaper photographers swarmed all over the famed 1925 Scopes ''monkey'' trial in Tennessee, where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan battled about the teaching of evolution; and at the 1935 trial in New Jersey of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The legal profession's discomfort over the circus atmosphere at the Lindbergh trial -- and earlier journalistic excesses -- gradually led to country-wide restraints on courtroom publicity, according to a 1948 address to the Maryland State Bar Association by Baltimore Judge Joseph Sherbow. Sherbow's speech is among the fascinating pieces of legal arcana in the files of federal bankruptcy Judge James F. Schneider, official historian of Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

Sherbow recalled that Baltimore's ban on courtroom photographs was adopted in 1928, after editors and photographers for the Baltimore News and Baltimore American, then jointly owned but separate papers, were convicted of contempt of court for taking and publishing surreptitious photos of a 1926 murder trial. (The Sun had asked to take photos but didn't do so when permission was denied; the News' city editor, Harry Clark, told his photographer, William Sturm, ''Go ahead and take the pictures,'' the Court of Appeals noted in upholding the contempt citations.)

Artists, who had been in Maryland's courtrooms long before cameras, consequently became the lone depictors of the visual aspects of celebrated trials.

Among those whose pens captured views within our courts have been McKee Barclay, once The Sun's editorial cartoonist, whose century-old drawings of the interiors of Baltimore's second courthouse, which stood from 1809 to 1895, are the only record we have of what those courtrooms looked like; Aaron Sopher, whose pen-and-ink sketches of Baltimore scenes now are highly prized; Betty Wells, who began doing courtroom sketches for WBAL-TV and became the U.S. Supreme Court artist for NBC News; Dominique and Christine Lemarie, French-born twins who followed Ms. Wells on the air; and The Sun's Charles Hazard, who has rendered precise, finely shaded ink drawings of such landmark local cases as the trials of Gov. Marvin Mandel and Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin of Alabama's Gov. George C. Wallace; as well the Washington, D.C., trials of William Hinckley, attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan, and Lt. Col. Oliver North.

The Supreme Court still bars cameras from its own hallowed chamber and other federal courtrooms, so in those venues Betty Wells continues to don her multi-pocketed smock and bandoleer of 30 colored felt-tipped markers and Charles Hazard remains on call for major trials.

But TV seems to be taking over.

A nationwide loosening of restrictions on cameras has prompted television coverage of notorious cases in recent years. An entire cable channel, Court TV, was launched in the summer of 1991, winning a small but fanatic following.

Maryland's Court of Appeals, the state's highest tribunal, adopted a rule in 1981 that allows cameras and tape recorders in the state's two appellate courts and, with the consent of both parties, into civil courts as well. Legislation passed handily by the state Senate on February 11, and now before the House of Delegates, would lift the legislature's prohibition on television and radio coverage of Maryland criminal trials and enable the Court of Appeals to make it easier to cover civil cases, too.

''I have mixed emotions about it,'' says Betty Wells, ''I think what we lose a lot with cameras in the courtroom is the dignity'' of the proceeding. She also expressed concern about TV promoting the ''star status of criminals.''

''To put them on camera would be terrible. . . . A good artist can do a really credible job of telling the story of a trial . . . in a more delicate manner -- and create a little more refinement to a situation. . . . The prying eye [of TV] gets a little too close, a little too intimate.''

Charles Hazard feels much the same. ''A camera takes everything in -- but with a drawing you can leave some things out. You can exclude unimportant things and heighten what you do portray.''

Courtroom artists bestow a touch of class on everyone they depict, even the crooks. And although many in the legal profession now say TV cameras in courtrooms will enhance the public's understanding of what goes on there, lawyers and judges also know they will lose something special when they put trial artists out to pasture: the prospect of courtroom drawings of themselves to adorn their office walls.

F: Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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