Panel upholds ban on televising trials

April 10, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- A bid to repeal a 13-year-old ban on televising criminal trials in Maryland failed by one vote yesterday after lawmakers said they were worried that the change would discourage witnesses or crime victims from coming forward.

The measure, which the Senate approved 27-15 on Feb. 12, died in the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-9 vote. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the chairman, exercised his option of not voting, even though he had spoken favorably about the bill during the committee's debate.

A spokesman for the Society of Professional Journalists, which had lobbied hard for the bill, immediately expressed disappointment in its rejection.

"It's evident in the 41 states that have it, it's worked well," said Sue Kopen, a news anchor on WBAL-radio. "All of the concerns raised were easily addressed in rules from the other states."

Republican Del. James M. Harkins, a deputy sheriff from Harford County, led the opposition, contending that witnesses to murders or other crimes, rape victims, "jail-house snitches" and other informants would be reluctant to testify knowing they might appear on TV.

Del. Kenneth H. Masters, a Baltimore County Democrat who is a lawyer, agreed, saying, "It will have a chilling effect . . . for people already reluctant if there is a possibility they're going to show up on the 6 o'clock news."

In 1980, the state's highest court agreed to allow TV coverage experimentally in the lower courts, but the General Assembly prohibited the practice in 1981.

Rather than simply repeal the prohibition and leave it up to the Court of Appeals to dictate the rules for cameras in the courtroom, Mr. Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat, suggested that rules already drafted by the high court be amended into state law.

Those rules would prohibit such coverage unless all parties agreed to it in writing. In addition, camera coverage could be terminated or limited at a witness' request. The rules also would give any party, including jurors, the right to request that such coverage be stopped or limited if the judge could be convinced that it was warranted.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who is a former television newsman, said television coverage of trials would "remove the shroud of secrecy" over the judicial system and make courtroom procedure more understandable to the public.

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