Court TV seeking to broadcast terror trial

Moussaoui case fuels push for more access

January 09, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Federal trial courts, one of the few television-free zones in an age of ever-present electronic media, are under increasing pressure to open their proceedings to the same glare that long ago became routine for lawmakers and many state courts across the country.

Lawyers for the Court TV cable channel are expected to ask a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., today for permission to broadcast the trial of terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, arguing that it is the only way to open the courtroom to the potentially millions of people affected by the attacks of Sept. 11.

It is the most high-profile challenge yet to a rule barring cameras from federal courtrooms, but it is not an isolated effort. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation in November that would allow cameras at federal trials. During the closely watched 2000 presidential election, news media outlets persuaded the Supreme Court for the first time to release same-day audiotapes of the arguments in Bush v. Gore.

"It is time to provide unlimited seating to the workings of justice," Kathleen A. Kirby, a Washington attorney, stated in court papers filed this week by media groups supporting Court TV's position. "By allowing the public to witness first-hand the Moussaoui proceedings ... this court will have seized an important opportunity to demystify the judicial process."

Still, resistance to the idea remains firm. The U.S. Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the federal courts, says cameras in courtrooms raise privacy concerns for witnesses in sensitive cases and put traditionally low-profile but powerful federal judges at risk.

Exhibit A for those who want to keep courtrooms camera-free is the O.J. Simpson murder trial, in which opponents blamed gavel-to-gavel television coverage for lawyer and witness grandstanding and other delays and distractions.

"It became a circus, and it was so protracted," said Beth Otter, a sketch artist who has recorded Baltimore courtroom scenes for two decades. "I know even when I'm present, people definitely take notice of my being there. So you can imagine what it's like with a camera."

Current rules prohibit cameras in all trial-level federal courts. At the appellate level, judges can decide whether to allow broadcast of courtroom arguments. But almost none allow it. Only the 2nd and 9th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, in New York and San Francisco, respectively, allow cameras.

Nationwide, cameras are far more commonplace in state courtrooms and other branches of government. But even then, they are not welcome everywhere.

Maryland's rules are among the most restrictive, with television cameras permitted only to record arguments before the state Court of Appeals and in some civil cases. Cameras have been banned from all state criminal trials except for a short-lived experiment in 1980.

In the case against Moussaoui, government prosecutors are prepared to argue that the federal ban should stand. Most seriously, they say, opening the trial to TV cameras could help operatives within the al-Qaida terror network, which U.S. officials blame for plotting the attacks.

"The government has uncovered evidence that high level members of the organization were kept informed of developments in (prior) U.S. criminal trials involving al-Qaida members," Robert A. Spencer, an assistant U.S. attorney, stated in court papers filed in Virginia. "A worldwide broadcast of these proceedings might assist al-Qaida in retaliating against the witnesses who testify against it."

At an appearance last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft raised the notion of televised terror trials as an obvious mistake as he defended the possibility that some foreign terrorists could be tried in potentially secret military tribunals.

In arguments today before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of Virginia, government prosecutors are expected to argue that although the Constitution provides for most court proceedings to be open to the public, there is no public right to televised trials.

In the federal trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, victims' families in Oklahoma were allowed to watch the proceedings in Denver via a closed-circuit broadcast. The Senate approved legislation last month allowing for similar accommodations in the Moussaoui case.

Attorneys for Court TV and the cable channel C-SPAN say that in the modern world of the Internet and 24-hour cable news, court proceedings should be televised. "Through television, the means exist for all Americans to exercise their constitutional right to observe this trial," Lee Levine, an attorney representing Court TV, said in court filings.

Defense attorneys representing Moussaoui are backing the networks' requests, arguing in court papers that televising the trial, "will ensure that the entire world is able to watch the proceedings and will add an additional layer of protection to see that these proceedings are fairly considered."

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