Share this article

print logo

CAMERAS UNLIKELY TO RETURN TO LOCAL COURTS SOON

It looks like you'll have to stick with Judge Judy or Court TV if you're a fan of televised court proceedings -- for a while at least.

Local courts aren't expected to immediately welcome back television cameras, though an Albany judge Tuesday declared unconstitutional a state law banning television cameras in courtrooms. On Wednesday, a second Albany judge also opened the door to courtroom cameras.

Their decisions, however, have no binding power on other courts, though the rulings may hold some sway in influencing judges, according to Harry Brand, executive assistant of the Eighth Judicial District of Western New York.

"It may be persuasive, and judges may use the decisions as they wish, but it would have to come from an appellate court for it to be binding," Brand said.

In the first ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi determined a television camera could be placed in his courtroom to provide coverage of the upcoming trial of four New York City police officers accused of murdering Amadou Diallo.

The white officers shot Diallo, a 22-year-old black street vendor, 19 times while he was in the vestibule of his apartment last February. Attorneys for the officers succeeded in moving the trial to Albany by arguing it would be impossible for their clients to receive a fair trial in the Bronx, where the killing occurred.

"The quest for justice in any case must be accomplished under the eyes of the public," Teresi stated in his decision.

The second court ruling on Wednesday in Albany County granted permission for televised coverage of a mother accused of murdering her infant.

In June 1997, a 10-year-old state law permitting cameras in courtrooms expired and action to renew the measure in the State Legislature fell flat in the aftermath of the televised murder trial of O.J. Simpson and its circuslike atmosphere.

"It's been debated throughout the state, and the ban so far has been successful," said State Supreme Court Justice James B. Kane, the former administrative judge for the Eighth Judicial District in Western New York.

He says he opposes courtroom cameras because they compromise privacy and decorum.

"There are some cases where parties, particularly witnesses, felt their rights were being abused by broadcasting. The witnesses wanted to maintain their right to privacy," Kane said.

Then there's the sensationalism factor, he said in referring to the Simpson case.

"I think with the Simpson trial, it did approach the level of a circus. The cameras became more important than the court," Kane said.

Another drawback is that only small portions of a trial often wind up being broadcast, the judge said.

"One of the problems we had was that the television cameras would be there for 10 minutes and then come back at the end of the trial for closing arguments and only 30 seconds would be shown on TV," Kane said.

Taking an opposing view, First Deputy Assistant Erie County District Attorney John J. DeFranks said all court proceedings should be televised in order to better inform and educate the public.

"There is a tremendous interest in what goes on at court and oftentimes, the most celebrated and interesting trials are well attended and there's not enough room in court," said DeFranks.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, cited the recent civil trial on the death of Cynthia Wiggins, who was struck and killed by a dump truck about four years while trying to cross Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga.

"The courtroom where that trial was held was one of the smaller courtrooms in our area and therefore the public had limited access," said Hoyt, who previously has opposed cameras in the courtroom.

He now says he is rethinking his position and might support televised proceedings.

"As long as there are ways to protect the privacy of witnesses and victims if they so desire, then I'm much more comfortable with cameras in the courtroom," Hoyt said.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, definitely would like to see cameras back in courts.

"I think it's good as long as it is done in a way that is not disturbing to the jury, the attorneys or the judge," said Maziarz, who previously has supported opening courts to cameras.

Paul J. Cambria Jr., one of the area's top defense attorneys, staunchly opposes reintroduction of cameras.

"I feel they negatively impact the process. I've seen higher bails and longer sentences given and if that's the result of a camera, I think it skews the system.

"You see judges looking at the camera with prepared statements. It's a campaign platform for them. It puts a face with the name. If one judge does this, that's one too many," Cambria said.

Taking a more middle of the road approach was attorney Robert J. Tronolone, an associate of defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels.

"Cameras are fine in some cases, but not in trials where there is a lot of gore. I do see how the camera can be educational. It would show how our system works, though it is often flawed," Tronolone said.

Trial judges should have a major say in whether a case is televised, according to Donald B. Eppers, president of the Erie County Bar Association.

"It should be up to the judge and I would hope that the judge would be sensitive to the litigants' rights," Eppers said. "If safeguards were in place, I think it's in all of our interests to let the public see and understand how our civil and criminal matters are resolved in court."

Prompted by Teresi's ruling, the State Legislature appears poised to again consider a new law that would permit cameras.

There are no comments - be the first to comment