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Allow cameras in court; The public has a right, and a need, to see how our legal system works

The trial of Dr. James G. Corasanti should be Exhibit A in the argument to allow cameras in New York's courtrooms. Not in recent memory has there been such polarizing opinion about a local verdict. If the keepers of the judicial system want the public more educated about what lawyers and judges do, and if they were surprised by the public backlash against the Corasanti jurors, they will abandon the weak-kneed, old-school ban against the visual coverage of trial testimony by the news media.

---- People who were able to sit and watch testimony in the Corasanti trial saw some sense in the string of not guilty verdicts rendered by the jury. The general public, meanwhile, who in going about their daily lives lacked the time to sit in the courtroom each day, were stunned that the doctor could, after hours of drinking, launch a teenage skateboarder to her death on his drive home and get away with it.

---- But to those in the courtroom audience, and to the jurors, there were other elements to consider: An expert witness who poked holes in the Amherst Police Department's reconstruction of the accident; Corasanti's seemingly convincing testimony that he did not know what he had hit; and the judge's charge to the jury in which she explained that for Corasanti to be convicted of leaving the scene, he had to have known he struck a human being.

---- Judge Sheila A. DiTullio refused to allow cameras to show Corasanti trial testimony, the correct application of New York's law ever since a 2005 ruling by the State Court of Appeals. New York's highest court, after an experiment that allowed cameras for a time, affirmed the original 1952 ban on cameras, thus achieving a great step backward. To her credit, DiTullio allowed cameras for opening and closing arguments by the lawyers, and she allowed photographs of the crumpled hood of Corasanti's luxury car, which prosecutors had entered as evidence.

---- However, the public would have been better served – while still ensuring Corasanti the right to a fair trial – had cameras been allowed. Video and still cameras need not be the intrusive devices that judges seem to fear. Many courtrooms are outfitted with a wall-mounted camera operated from another room. Ground rules can be established for sound-only coverage of witnesses who were drawn into the proceedings by happenstance and do not want their images used. The same can be done for jurors and victims. But judges, lawyers, police, expert witnesses and defendants should all be fair game. This is along the lines of a 2001 State Bar Association study that favored cameras in courtrooms.

---- The potential that cameras will affect the courtroom behavior of lawyers and judges should not negate the principle that people have a right to view their government in action. If the legal professionals showboat, shame on them, but that hardly means the defendant has lost the right to a fair trial. Trials in New York will not become akin to Judge Judy. And there's value in showing the public that trials are a far cry from those TV shows.

---- If the courts are everything that lawyers and judges would have you believe, then why not let the general public see that justice is being administered fairly? The public has the right to know how its government works. State leaders, those in the judiciary and the Legislature, have dithered on this matter for too long. Real progress should be made, and soon, to allow the visual coverage of criminal trials in New York.