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Cameras in courtrooms can bolster public confidence

The jury in the Fort Lauderdale courtroom had just reached a verdict in the case against Thomas Griffin. It found the brother of Buffalo's mayor and onetime city parks commissioner guilty of falsely claiming he lived in Florida to obtain a break on property taxes.

In her closing argument, Griffin's attorney pointed to the television cameras in the back of the court. "This is nothing more than a media trial," she told jurors.

Indeed, reporters and photojournalists from all three Buffalo television stations had covered the trial, their cameras perched on tripods set up in the spectator section of the room. The cameras recorded every minute, including the testimony of then-Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin. The year was 1988.

Curious about the impact the cameras had on the jury, a reporter approached one juror after the verdict was rendered. "Did the media's presence have any effect on your decision," she was asked. With a look of bewilderment on her face, she responded, "Aren't all trials televised?" And in Florida, they were, and still are.

It seemed to this onetime reporter that the cameras, bulky and obvious as they were, played no part in Griffin's conviction. The jury, the witnesses, the attorneys, except for the defense's reference in closing, and certainly the judge seemed to pay them no heed.

That incident kept coming back to mind during the maelstrom following the jury's verdict in the Dr. James Corasanti case. Jurors were excoriated by persons who knew nothing more about the trial than what they gleaned from news reports.

As fruitful and informative as that coverage was, it did not capture the actual words spoken by the witnesses, it did not capture their inflections, their demeanor or their facial expressions.

Having been a television reporter when cameras were temporarily allowed in New York's courtrooms, I can verify they provided coverage of important cases that no sketch artist or skilled journalist could. And, having later served as a trial attorney, I believe the presence of cameras in courtrooms has no effect on the outcome.

Today's technology allows camera presence with no physical intrusion. It allows distortion of voices or camouflage of faces in instances where a judge believes it to be necessary.

Allowing cameras to bring trials into the homes of New Yorkers welcomes those who cannot attend; it gives the shut out public an opportunity to witness the judicial system at work in real time. Might not that knowledge engender confidence, even criticism if merited, in the system? Isn't that what democracy's all about?

Perhaps the outcry over the Corasanti verdict might have been tempered if those who were not there had a chance to be there.

Lee Coppola is the retired dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.