Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias In his testimony before a congressional panel, Supreme Court Justice David Souter said: �The day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it�s going roll over my dead body.�

Understanding Souter�s aversion to TV court coverage is easy; just consider the biggest cases in recent memory � the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the �Nanny Trial� of Louise Woodward.

In Woodward�s case, the British au pair was accused of shaking a Massachusetts couple�s son to death, and coverage of her trial was likened by some to a sporting event, with play-by-play commentary and crowd reactions broadcast from both the United States and England.

Except for South Dakota, Indiana and Mississippi, all states allow TV cameras in courtrooms � not just state Supreme Court chambers, but courtrooms at virtually every level of the judiciary, from circuit to federal courts.

Video cameras were placed in courts to offer the American public the opportunity to become better educated about the judicial process, and prevent the abuses that can take place in closed proceedings. TV cameras can also provide the level of public access needed to build genuine public support for the justice system.

New ground in this debate over cameras in the courtroom was recently broken in our state. The South Dakota Supreme Court allowed newspaper and television cameras inside its chambers for the first time a few months back.

Despite the apparent lack of problems caused by cameras focusing on the S.D. Supreme Court�s business, there�s been little additional progress in making courtrooms more accessible to the public.

Public involvement in a controversial court case isn�t new. In the 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of Sam Sheppard, who was accused of bludgeoning his pregnant wife to death.

The justices ruled that the pre-trial TV reports declared Sheppard guilty and that �bedlam reigned at the courthouse.�

Mention of this case conjures up images from old movies, when reporters wielding large cameras would practically stampede into the well of a courtroom, flash bulbs blazing, to get a dramatic shot of the accused for their newspapers� front pages.

South Dakota is still at the thinking stage when it comes to cameras and the courts. Be assured that should cameras be allowed in chambers, the reporters will have to follow strict guidelines to insure there is no �bedlam.�

Call it a test flight of sorts.

A mock trial will be staged from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 13 here at the USD School of Law, using a real judge, real lawyers, and something that�s not seen in South Dakota courtrooms.

That third element? News media representatives, wielding cameras.

Hopefully the mock trial will help both the judiciary and local media representatives determine if South Dakota is ready to make courtrooms a bit more accessible to the general public.

Questions that hopefully will receive answers from this experience are: Is a trial still fair if the public gets involved? To what extent do judges, jurors and lawyers change their behavior when they know the world is watching?

We�re willing to bet that trials can be fairly presented, even in a climate that includes cameras.

Vermillion citizens have a bit of an advantage in making this determination. For several years now, the meetings of the Vermillion City Council have been televised on the city�s cable television system.

The cameras, for the most part, don�t appear to inject any additional drama to proceedings. In fact, it�s probably fair to say that most people don�t realize they are on camera when they participate in a City Hall meeting.

We think the same can happen in our courts. The upcoming mock trial, hopefully, will help South Dakota join the great majority of states that allow camera coverage of court proceedings.

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