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Delegate focusing on more cameras and open courts

February 11, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., who wants to expand the use of cameras in Maryland's courtrooms, has an unusual viewing audience in mind.

Gang members.

The culture of gangs revolves around fear and machismo. If you tear down the swaggering, he figures, you might tear away the gang's fiber.

Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican, thinks it would demoralize a gang member to see one of his brethren sentenced for a crime.

"A gangbanger doesn't look so big and bad pleading for mercy from the court ..." he said. "It certainly takes some of the glitter off the bling."

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Smigiel's optimism for deterrence injects another element into an argument that usually pits the openness of government against the need for decorum and privacy.

Government bodies from Congress down to the municipal level, including the Hagerstown City Council, let cameras record and air what they do. The Maryland General Assembly is among them.

Courts, though, often have more limits - particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, which prohibits camera coverage. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has proposed a bill to change that.

All 50 states allow cameras in courts in some form, but 13 don't permit coverage of criminal trials, according to a 2002 summary by the National Center for State Courts.

Maryland lets the media use still and video cameras to cover civil trials, but not criminal trials.

In a civil proceeding, all parties have to approve the presence of a camera or it can't be there - except government officials, who cannot refuse.

Opponents worry about the effects of cameras.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. sees several pitfalls, such as grandstanding by attorneys and the sensitivity of having victims speak in open court.

He said newspaper photographers, as they shift around looking for the best shot, could be a distraction.

"I don't believe it assists the court," Strong said.

Told about Smigiel's gang deterrence theory, Strong laughed and called it a stretch, although a novel one.

Another negative, he said, is five-second TV news bytes that might distort or oversimplify what happened.

In a memo opposing Smigiel's bill, the Maryland Judiciary, the state's court system, concurs.

"Television coverage of trials typically provide (sic) edited 'highlights' of what often are lengthy trials," the memo says. "Such editing has the potential to misrepresent or mislead the viewing public as to the evidence presented in the case. When the ultimate decision is at odds with what the viewing public concludes, based on partial information, should have been the 'correct' decision, confidence in the judicial process is diminished.

"The potential for distortion and sensationalism is particularly acute when, as under the current proposal, a broadcast of only the sentencing hearing is contemplated."

"That's true, but so does reporting by newspapers," John J. Murphy, the executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said, referring to possible misrepresentation in the news. "If you're going to live in a free society, you're going to put up with some mistakes that might get made from time to time."

The Herald-Mail is a member of the press association.

Murphy said other arguments against cameras don't hold up and don't outweigh the public's right to know - and see with its own eyes.

"The basic fact of the democracy is that people have a right to see what goes on in court," he said.

The Maryland Judiciary memo cites concerns about victim and witness privacy, logistics, costs and the bill's requirement that media outlets give 24 hours' notice before covering criminal sentencing proceedings. The judiciary calls that "woefully insufficient" and wants at least 10 days' notice.

Smigiel, a lawyer, tried unsuccessfully the last two years to open up all criminal proceedings. This year, he narrowed his focus to the sentencing stage.

"We should be able to have open courts just like we have open governments," Smigiel said.

He said cameras would be a good check against the media, too; the public can see if coverage is accurate.

Two Republicans representing Washington County - Christopher B. Shank and LeRoy E. Myers Jr. - are co-sponsors.

Shank said the popularity of Court TV and fictionalized crime shows that the public is interested.

"I think it's important to allow citizens to have full access to our system of justice ..." Shank said. "There needs to be transparency in our legal system and also accountability."

On the Web at mlis.state.md.us: HB 207




Tri-State regulations on cameras in courtrooms



Maryland

Cameras are allowed for civil trials, but not criminal proceedings at the trial level. Coverage of cases in appellate courts is permitted. One television camera is allowed in trial courts and two in appellate courts. One still photographer, with no more than two cameras, each having no more than two lenses, is allowed in trial and appellate cases.

Pennsylvania

Photography and broadcasting generally is prohibited for civil and criminal trials, but may be allowed for nonjury civil proceedings. Coverage of proceedings before district justices is prohibited.

West Virginia

Presiding circuit and magistrate judges may allow cameras. One television camera and one still photographer, with one camera and not more than two lenses, are allowed in court at a time.

Source: Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation's Web site

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