Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad has reignited the debate in Virginia courts over whether cameras in courtrooms inform the public or distract from the business of administering justice.

The law in Virginia gives judges wide latitude in deciding the question. They may allow television cameras in court, permit only still photography or ban both.

In Mr. Muhammad’s case, Prince William County Circuit Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. chose to permit still photography. He banned television cameras, however, saying that they could compromise the sniper suspect’s right to a fair trail.

Judge Millette did allow the presence of a closed-circuit television camera that feeds live footage to victims’ families and law-enforcement officials who want to watch the trial in a separate room.

Mr. Muhammad’s decision to represent himself has only deepened the disappointment among broadcasters unable to capture images of the suspect walking around the courtroom, mingling with his attorneys and questioning witnesses.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the D.C.-based Radio-Television News Directors Association. “The story has affected the entire region. People felt that they were at risk. They have an interest in seeing how justice is done.”

Others, however, warned that cameras in the courtroom could lead to celebrity television and distract the public from the somber facts of the case.

“You have a tragedy of a dozen people killed that would turn into a big television show,” said Brent Baker, vice president of D.C.-based Media Research Center. “No local television station would be able to resist going with wall-to-wall live coverage, and all the lawyers in the case would end up getting gigs on cable television as analysts.”

Matthew Felling, media director for D.C.-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, agreed that judges should be wary of opening their courtrooms to television.

“Lawyers are born performers, and they’re looking for an audience and a ticket to celebrity,” Mr. Felling said.

Print photographers tend to have more leeway when judges decide which type of media to allow in their courtrooms. One pool photographer is permitted in the Muhammad case.

However, Fairfax County Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush has banned both still photography and television cameras in the upcoming trial of fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo. Mr. Malvo’s trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 10 in Chesapeake, Va.

The Virginia Press Association (VPA) said Judge Roush’s ruling was unusual because over the past decade, still and television cameras have been allowed into most of the state’s courts during high-profile cases.

“We’ve had good experience in the Virginia courts, but we had to work hard to get in the Muhammad trial,” said Ginger Stanley, VPA’s executive manager. “The Malvo trial may be a problem, though.”

Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, who is the lead prosecutor in the Muhammad case, once favored cameras in the courtroom. But he changed his mind in 1995 when cameras were allowed to televise the Lorena Bobbitt trial.

Mr. Ebert was the lead prosecutor in the case against Mrs. Bobbitt, who was charged with malicious wounding for cutting off her husband’s penis. Mrs. Bobbitt was acquitted of the charge.

Mr. Ebert referred to that case when he opposed a motion filed by media groups seeking the judge’s permission to televise the Muhammad case.

“The court well knows that at one point in time I had no objection to live coverage, but I’ve changed my mind based on personal experience,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Ebert as saying during a pretrial hearing last December. “Witnesses, for lack of a better word, tend to ham it up.”

Before 1992, Virginia courts widely restricted the use of cameras and television equipment, but since then, judges have eased restrictions and most now allow cameras, according to media groups.

However, even if judges permit still or television cameras, the media must agree to abide by certain rules. For example, Virginia law prohibits taking pictures of jurors, police informants, minors, undercover agents and victims and families of victims of sex offenses.

Not all court proceedings can be covered, either. The law prohibits camera coverage of adoption, juvenile criminal hearings, and divorce and spousal support proceedings.

No more than one still photographer and two television camera operators can be in the courtroom at the same time. Photographers also are not allowed to take equipment in or out of the courtroom except during breaks, or before and after proceedings.

In the Muhammad case, six news organizations belong to a pool of photographers who take turns taking pictures from a spot in the last row of the right side of the courtroom. Photographers use protective covers to mute the sound of their picture taking.

Under those rules, some experts say both still and television cameras should have a place in the courts. “If cameras are kept to the back of the courtroom, then they don’t impact the trial,” said Ira Robbins, professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

“If people get so used to the camera,” he said, “then eventually it becomes a nonissue.”

Jon Ward in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.

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