Delegates focus on cameras in court

February 09, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - A proposal to let news cameras broadcast certain court proceedings was aired before a state legislative committee on Tuesday.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Caroline/Cecil/Kent/Queen Anne's, is sponsoring a bill to let criminal sentencing hearings be photographed and filmed.

The same bill failed in Smigiel's House Judiciary Committee 11-10 last year. Broader versions of the bill, allowing access to all criminal proceedings, were rejected in previous years.

Maryland currently allows cameras in courts for civil trials and appellate proceedings, but not criminal trials.

Pennsylvania generally prohibits photography and broadcasting for civil and criminal trials, but permits them for nonjury civil proceedings.

In West Virginia, circuit and magistrate judges may allow cameras.

Smigiel, a lawyer, argued Tuesday that greater access would give the public a bigger stake in the criminal justice system.

Opponents say cameras will disrupt the process, make victims hesitant to speak in court and encourage grandstanding.


News organizations will air several seconds of an emotional moment in a case out of context, Baltimore City District Judge Nathan Braverman testified.

"They're not showing you," he said. "They're entertaining you."

Braverman is chair of the Maryland Judicial Conference's Committee to Study Extended Media Coverage, which held its own hearing on courtroom coverage last year. The state's chief judge is reviewing the committee's report.

Michelle Butt, the news director of television station WBAL in Baltimore, testified that TV cameras provide "an authentic depiction of the day's events" and allow viewers "to see the inner workings of the court."

For criminal cases, seeing a disposition can "provide closure to communities in mourning," Butt said.

Written testimony by the Maryland D.C. Delaware Broadcasters Association says studies have debunked theories that cameras lead to distractions, showboating and fearful witnesses.

In an interview after filing the same bill last year, Smigiel said broadcasting sentencings could be a crime deterrent.

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

Braverman said Tuesday that judges, prosecutors and public defenders are united in their opposition against cameras in courtrooms.

In written testimony, the state's public defender's office argued that a broadcast of a sentencing "essentially eviscerates a person's right to expunge a prior criminal record."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said outside the hearing room that cameras in courts serve a purpose. With only sentencing eligible for broadcast, "it's not going to be bread and circuses ..." he said. "I don't think the judiciary should be afraid of that."

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