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Cameras and the court: von Bulow trial spotlights issue

By George B. MerryStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1982


When socialite Claus von Bulow was convicted of twice attempting to kill his heiress wife, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people, were looking on and listening.

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Television cameras and sound recorders were in the Newport, R.I., courtroom March 16 for the ''guilty'' pronouncement by the jury foreman, as they had been throughout the dramatic two-month trial. At least six television stations and the national networks had regularly provided excerpts of the proceedings on their evening newscasts.

In the von Bulow trial the judge denied a bid to exclude cameras and tape recorders. This cleared the way for what will probably be the big test of such coverage in Rhode Island, where a one-year experimental period is to end in October. The State Supreme Court justices then will decide whether to permanently open judicial proceedings -- both trials and appellate sessions -- to TV and newspaper cameras and radio microphones.

Such coverage, although a first in Rhode Island, now is allowed at least on an experimental or limited basis in 32 other states.

While hardly an established part of the American courtroom scene, cameras and tape recorders are increasingly on hand there. The Colorado Supreme Court opened the way for this coverage in 1956 when it ruled that it is up to a trial judge to decide whether he wishes to permit cameras and microphones in his courtroom.

Since courts are responsible for making rules covering their operations, most of the movement to clear the way for cameras and recorders has come from within the judiciary, rather than through statute.

Besides the 33 states where television coverage of court proceedings of one form or another is now allowed, one other -- Utah -- has admitted still cameras since April 1981.

Lawyers and judges remain split on the question, however. And in many states the decision to let cameras in is far from final.

Much could hinge on whether the American Bar Association (ABA), long a staunch foe of filmed or sound-recorded court sessions, relaxes its opposition.

Three ABA standing committees are currently working on a draft recommendation for amending the bar association's now 45-year-old Canon 35, which recommends that judges bar the use of cameras and broadcasting equipment in their courtrooms. Changes are expected to be considered at the group's annual meeting in August.

Canon 35 was adopted in 1937 in the wake of adverse criticism of still photography and voice recording during the New Jersey trial at which Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted of kidnapping the infant son of Charles A. Lindbergh. The bar association extended its policy to include TV cameras in 1952 . It rejected a proposal to amend its position in 1979.

Although declining to speculate what the committees might recommend, ABA staffer Richard Lynch notes that ''there has been a great deal of movement'' within the legal profession toward a less rigid stand.

The proposal being worked on would not endorse the use of cameras but would leave the question to court officials. TV, recorder, or still photography coverage would be permitted if ''consistent with the rights to a fair trial'' and if conducted ''in a manner that would be unobtrusive, would not distract the participants, and would not otherwise interfere with the administration of justice.''

Substantial opposition to even a modest ABA policy shift continues. This was evident in the results of a poll of American attorneys, published in the April edition of the American Bar Association Journal. Of those responding, 57 to 67 percent (depending on the region) generally opposed cameras in courts, especially during trial proceedings.