Photographing Criminal Trials

April 03, 1994

More than a decade after the Court of Appeals decided to permit photographing of criminal trials in Maryland, it may finally happen. A bill to remove a legislative ban on cameras in criminal trials has passed the state Senate and is awaiting action by the House Judiciary Committee. A hearing is set for this coming Wednesday.

Civil and appellate courts have been open to cameras since 1981, subject to strict controls -- and the halls of justice still stand.

Forty-one states permit photographing of criminal trials without the horrendous results predicted by opponents of camera coverage. Even the federal courts, the last holdout against cameras, are starting to look benevolently on them. Maryland, so often in the forefront of modern judicial practice, is bringing up the rear on this one.

On the whole, Maryland's judges are willing to tolerate if not actually welcome cameras in their courtrooms. The Court of Appeals, which makes the rules for all of the state's courts, voted to approve cameras for all proceedings, subject to certain controls. Prodded mostly by some trial lawyers, the legislature overruled the state's highest court and prohibited photographing criminal trials. The bill pending in Annapolis would lift the legislative ban and permit the Court of Appeals to make up its own mind.

Federal courts, under the conservative leadership of the Supreme Court, have been experimenting gingerly with cameras for almost three years. The results of the pilot program, to the surprise of some in the federal judiciary, have been almost completely favorable.

A study by the Federal Judicial Center last winter found that judges and attorneys exposed to cameras during trials experienced little or no ill effects on the proceedings. Judges who had no strong feelings for or against cameras at the start of the experiment were generally more favorable after seeing them in action. Most thought that broadcasting trials would educate the public about the judicial system.

Studies by states having much greater experience with cameras in courts found that there was little negative impact on witnesses or jurors. Nor were witnesses reluctant to testify for fear of retaliation. Those are two of the most frequent objections raised by opponents of photographing criminal trials. The fear of distraction seems to be in the minds of lawyers who have never tried a case before cameras. If they tried it, they'd like it.

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