Trials on television

SINCE the late 1950s, the public has been enamored with TV courtroom dramatizations - ``Traffic Court,'' ``Divorce Court,'' ``The People's Court,'' you name it. These programs come and go - interspersed with an occasional docudrama on well-publicized criminal trials. There is precious little teaching about the law in these presentations. If you watch closely, you may discern a basic precept of American jurisprudence: that the accused is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

But there is also too often a built-in distrust for the system and how it works. Dishonest judges, conniving lawyers, and perjurious witnesses make good theater - as do situations where murderers are ostensibly freed under ``technicalities.''

Certainly the public should be alerted to real abuses of the law. An observer sitting in the courtroom over a period of time is often impressed, however, that the system does work most of the time.

A persuasive argument for the use of cameras in the courtroom is that they can be an effective tool in teaching how the system works.

More than 40 states now admit television to these proceedings, mostly in the lower courts.

The basic concern is that this electronic intrusion may disrupt the process, influence the actions of courtroom principals, and thus sway justice.

Most states impose television guidelines to protect the fairness of trials. Others are looking to accommodate television during trials, but with strict controls.

A special judicial committee in Michigan, for example, after a five-month study, is recommending opening all state courtrooms to cameras and recording equipment. But these rules would grant judges wide latitude to limit or deny coverage.

This discretion, for example, might be used to ban TV during a child's testimony in a sex abuse case.

Meanwhile, a rare television preview was held in US Supreme Court during a recent recess. Three justices, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, viewed a 25-minute demonstration of what TV might be like in this rarefied chamber.

So far, the high court has resisted the admission of cameras to the courtroom, even during hearings of broad public interest, such as last term's special-prosecutor case.

It would seem that the controlled atmosphere of the nation's highest court - where testimony is generally limited to one hour per case and only the litigants' lawyers present arguments - would be an ideal format for television coverage. Here there is little opportunity for undue histrionics.

Cases at this level deal with the broadest constitutional issues. This might be an excellent way to educate the public on individual freedom and responsibility.

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