Hollywood murder: Should trial be on TV?

With its tabloidy parallels to the O.J. Simpson case, former 'Baretta' star's trial raises issues of taste and civics in allowing cameras in court.

The news images are eerily similar: a well-known celebrity is led to and from court in handcuffs, or videotaped with police escort by live "heli-cam." The charges and circumstances are similar too: a murdered wife, a history of spousal conflict amid sexual peccadilloes, and alibis that don't add up.

Because of the surface resemblance to the O.J. Simpson murder case, the trial of former TV star Robert Blake – now in preliminary stages in a courtroom here – is reviving the issue of cameras in the courtroom. Mr. Blake, a child star and actor in the 1970s detective series, "Baretta," is being held for allegedly murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, who was shot May 4, 2001, in a car outside a restaurant where the couple had just dined.

The Simpson criminal trial was widely considered to have put the American system of justice itself on trial because of the gavel-to-gavel coverage. The camera's eye showed the proceedings (some say antics) of judge, lawyers, and witnesses to millions – many tuning in to a trial for the first time.

Virtually all the key players became household names as tabloids recounted their life histories, and late-night comedians parodied the main characters, including Jay Leno's "Dancing (Judge) Ito."

Because the trial was criticized for losing control of its own proceedings – and by others for subverting justice as a result – many analysts wonder whether such dangers are afoot in the Blake trial.

"I think it represents a serious difficulty for the American judicial system if Mr. Blake is allowed to be tried in front of cameras," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law. "It's too lurid, too sensational, and virtually guarantees that the media will play a role in the outcome."

Blake trial headed for TV?

So far, Superior Court Judge Lloyd Nash has permitted video cameras only for an early arraignment of Blake, but no decision has yet been made on whether television will be allowed into the actual trial, scheduled to begin June 17.

Supporters of in-court TV cameras say no important trial should proceed without cameras. The Simpson case became a circus, they say, because of the participants.

"The O.J. case was an anomaly because Judge Ito let things get out of hand," says Doug Jacobs, executive vice president for Court TV, the cable network. "Usually the camera shows a decorous, sedate courtroom proceeding appropriately with the judge in control."

Although many judges and attorneys called for a complete ban on courtroom cameras after the Simpson trial, California law leaves the decision up to judges. All 50 states permit cameras in some form in court. Forty-three consent to the use of cameras to cover all trial proceedings, and 37 states allow coverage of criminal trials.

Playing to the gallery

While detractors say that the presence of cameras has the potential to distort proceedings by encouraging attorneys and witnesses to grandstand, supporters hold that the cameras provide a form of accountability by increasing scrutiny of the proceedings.

"Lawyers know that if they act inappropriately they just reveal themselves to the world as doing just that," says Jacobs, who points to studies showing that witnesses forget about the cameras – which are placed in a far corner, and are often run by remote control.

A state judicial task force examined the issue in 1996 to 1997 and rewrote rules to clarify that trial judges have nearly complete discretion in deciding which part, if any, of a trial may be televised.

A California-funded statewide survey the following year showed TV camera usage growing. From 1998-99, nearly four of every five TV requests were approved by judges throughout the state.

The issue was debated nationally in 2000, when the US Supreme Court heard arguments over the disputed Florida vote count in the presidential election. Despite pressure from civil libertarians that cameras would open the governmental process to a public cynical over the vote count, the justices allowed only audio taping of the proceedings.

Legislation pending

But partly fueled by outrage over such decisions, legislation now in Congress would allow cameras in federal courtrooms. Called the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, the bill is sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa and Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York. The measure made it out of committee in November and is awaiting vote of the full Senate.

In most states, judges have case-by-case discretion, and some mandate formal permission from both prosecution and defense.

"If I were a judge, I might not want to be bothered by coverage of my courtroom, but as a citizen I would want to keep my eyes on exactly what's going on," says Norman Garland, a specialist in criminal law.

Daytime TV of the worst sort?

Still other observers hold that televised trials can pander to the basest motives of TV viewers by sensationalizing lurid and grisly crime details.

"I would say in the great majority of cases, I see there being a benefit with having the magnifying glass of a camera in court," says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"In this case, I think the camera, coupled with the celebrity and the seedy facts of this case, has more of a potential for distortion rather than a revealing effect."

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