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STATE SHOULD REVIVE THE LAW ALLOWING TV CAMERAS INTO OUR COURTROOMS

The failure to renew the 10-year-old law allowing TV and news cameras in state courtrooms deprives New Yorkers of an important window on our criminal-justice system.

The law that gave New Yorkers a bird's-eye view of day-to-day courthouse activity, from high-profile trials of notorious and violent criminals to routine hearings on interesting points of law, expired quietly on June 30.

As a result, New Yorkers who click on the mouse of a desktop computer can view live video of the Martian landscape courtesy of the Mars Rover space explorer, but they can't click on their remote controls to learn the latest news from the courthouse down the street.

Within hours of the law's sunset, the impact was felt in living rooms throughout the state. TV cameramen were forced to resume their former "stake-out" positions outside courtrooms, jostling with their competitors to provide home viewers with mere glimpses of defendants as they typically ran or ducked for cover.

In a case handled by my office, cameramen even followed a convicted child pornographer into the courthouse bathroom to provide illustrations for their evening news report.

None of these incidents contributes to the public's knowledge of the individual cases, nor to their understanding of our legal system.

Early in my career as a criminal prosecutor, I had the opportunity to participate in one of the very first trials in which television cameras were permitted.

That case, involving the slaying of two beloved parish priests during break-ins at their Buffalo rectories, stunned an entire community.

Emotions ran high, and some critics of the new law worried that the presence of courtroom cameras would interfere with the jury's ability to arrive at a just verdict.

But not only were the defendant's rights zealously guarded by the judge throughout the trial, but the public's right to know was protected as well.

Concerned citizens had their first opportunity to see the justice system in action -- and to see a cold-blooded killer convicted of a heinous crime.

For the past 10 years, television cameras brought New Yorkers closer to the workings -- and the failings -- of our justice system.

While courtrooms are largely opened to the public, and Chief Judge Judith Kaye recently expanded public access to include many Family Court proceedings, the fact is that most citizens don't regularly travel to courthouses for a firsthand view. Nor should they have to.

Critics have charged that the presence of cameras encourages courtroom antics that disrupt decorum. To be sure, the cameras that broadcast the infamous O.J. Simpson double-murder trial captured grandstanding lawyers and a posturing judge.

Compared to both Simpson's untelevised civil trial as well as the trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, those critics conclude that the cameras led to a miscarriage of justice in Simpson's criminal trial.

But it's not the cameras that determine the outcome of a trial, any more than the presence of spectators in the courtroom would. Cameras merely record the proceedings.

In the Simpson trial, O.J.'s fate was not decided by the millions of viewers tuned in to "gavel-to-gavel" coverage, but by the 12 sequestered jurors who handed down the verdict.

Clearly, responsibility for conducting a fair trial falls squarely on the judge.

New York's law gave judges wide latitude in determining when and where cameras were allowed. Because the law must recognize and protect the rights of victims, important safeguards were included to shield the identity of victims and witnesses -- especially children.

And New York's law worked. In the 10 years it was in effect, not a single conviction was overturned nor a single verdict successfully appealed as a result of cameras in the courtroom.

Ironically, the law's sunset comes shortly after my office unveiled a new video-conferencing system with the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.

The system allows assistant attorneys general and private attorneys to appear via video hookup, teleconferencing with the appellate judges some 150 miles away, while saving taxpayers thousands of dollars in unnecessary travel expenses and making the court and my office more efficient.

The system also is available to private attorneys from across New York. This system represents the future of courtroom cameras even as, in the state courts, we slip back into the past.

Right now, just two other states do not permit cameras in their courtrooms. The Legislature must not recess before reopening the window on the world of our justice system.

DENNIS VACCO, formerly U.S. attorney in Buffalo, was elected New York State attorney general in 1994.

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