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JUSTICE FOR ALL TO SEE

If any court case needed the public confidence that comes with letting citizens see exactly what transpires, it's the racially charged trial of four white New York City police officers accused of murdering West African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

The fact that the trial was shifted from the Bronx to Albany -- where the makeup of the jury could be radically different -- only heightens the need for transparency. Everyone needs the chance to see and understand exactly what happens in the courtroom so that any eventual verdict is assessed in the context of accurate information rather than gossip and distortions.

That was the rationale of State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi in concluding that "the denial of access to the vast majority will accomplish nothing but more divisiveness" and would violate the media's First Amendment right to show the public what government is doing.

That also was the rationale of defense lawyers in opting not to appeal the ruling. One attorney insisted that "once the public sees all the evidence they're going to understand why these officers did what they did."

That remains to be seen, given that the four plainclothes cops fired 41 shots at the unarmed Diallo. But at least it will be seen, thanks to Teresi's ruling. Then the public will get to assess for itself the officers' claims that they acted reasonably when confronting someone they thought -- mistakenly -- had a gun.

The decision came in a challenge to the state's ban on courtroom cameras filed by Court TV, which will now be allowed to have a pool camera and share its video with other networks. That arrangement should minimize any intrusions. And what really should happen is that the State Legislature should permanently repeal the outdated law that makes New York one of only three states that imposes a blanket ban on cameras.

Four separate analyses of New York's 10-year experiment with cameras in court -- which expired in 1997 -- concluded there were no adverse effects. And despite memories of the O.J. Simpson fiasco presided over by a weak trial judge, it is foolish to base broad policy on that one exceptional case.

Judges are capable of setting rules -- as Teresi did here in allowing a single pool camera -- that can maintain courtroom decorum, protect defendants' rights and still let citizens see for themselves whether justice is being done.

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