Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Courtroom Cameras

I just watched Donna Moonda's relatives run the media gauntlet for the umpteenth time in the last few weeks. Her trial continues in Federal Court across the street from our newsroom. Jurors have already convicted her in the death of her husband and are now in the death penalty phase. Her relatives are attending to support her and are forced to use the front entrance like everyone else.

Each time the Moonda folks come out of the courthouse, they're swamped by media as they try to head for their cars. They never say anything to the media, but that doesn't stop the cameras from being there -- just in case.

My point tonight is that it doesn't have to be that way. The Moonda gauntlet is just one of a series of byproducts to the ban on cameras in Federal Court. Reporters are permitted inside but cannot bring any recording equipment. Had the Moonda case been tried in Common Pleas Court, like most murders, there would likely be wall-to-wall video feeds to the Internet and maybe even nationally to Court TV. In Federal court, it's a virtual blackout.

If cameras were permitted in the Federal courthouse, the family members could tell reporters "no thanks" as they get in their elevators and be done with it. In fact, I doubt many TV crews would take the time to film them going in and out because of the short lobby run. Instead, those poor folks are stuck running for their lives from crews that wish they didn't appear like a mob.

I'm not sure why the Federal Courts continue their ban on cameras when the vast majority of county and municipal-level courtrooms do allow cameras and see very few problems. Judges often allow one camera as a "pool" feed to all stations and the videographer is often instructed which witnesses, court officials, etc .. that do not wish to be photographed. Jurors are never shown so their identities remain protected. The entire system is usually coordinated amongst the media before the trial even begins, and then we're provided some semblance of order and the viewers benefit from seeing how the case really unfolded.

For the most part, the process is no different in Federal Court, so why not let the public see the proceedings? I realize that it's probably a Federal rule or law or directive or whatever. But it's 2007. Are we ready for a change here? Would anyone else liked to have seen the proceedings against the one terror suspect from 9-11 or the Timothy McVeigh case?

I'm hoping some of you will post your comments on this topic; I'd like to hear the arguments for and against cameras in Federal court. Meanwhile, the Moondas will be back with their running shoes tomorrow.

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