Televised trials: Terror compounds debate

Moussaoui and Court TV favor camera in court. Critics say suspect may get forum to promote terror.

Will Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks, become a TV star?

In a Virginia courtroom today, federal district judge Leonie Brinkema will hear arguments about that possibility when she considers Court TV's petition to broadcast Mr. Moussaoui's trial.

At issue is whether cameras in court serve to educate and inform the public or only distract participants and distort justice.

The role of cameras in court has been debated by lawyers from the 1935 kidnapping trial involving Charles Lindbergh's baby through the 2000 presidential showdown at the US Supreme Court.

This time, the questions come with an added twist: a defendant who allegedly represents a global terrorist movement.

Soapbox for hate?

Opponents of the Court TV petition worry that a televised trial would give Moussaoui a high-profile soapbox to promote an anti-American world view.

The channel says its single unobtrusive video camera would help Americans exercise what it calls a "constitutional right to observe the trial" of the only suspect indicted so far in the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history.

Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent, asserted in a court filing that the presence of cameras could "add an additional layer of protection" to ensure the trial is conducted fairly.

But Justice Department lawyers argue that cameras may scare away witnesses and intimidate jurors afraid of terrorist reprisals.

Even if such concerns were addressed, other critics of the proposal worry that putting the trial on TV could create the kind of circus-like atmosphere that surrounded O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995. In that case, the judge and attorneys faced relentless second-guessing from armchair lawyers.

Regardless of whether cameras appear, Moussaoui has already shown signs of defiance in the courtroom.

At his arraignment last week, Moussaoui said only, "In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead." (His lawyers entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.) He also remained seated while others in the courtroom stood for the judge's departure.

If convicted, Moussaoui could be sentenced to death for conspiring with Al Qaeda operatives to prepare the attacks. He was arrested in August on immigration charges while attending a Minnesota flight school.

No matter which side proves more persuasive in court today, Brinkema may actually have little say about whether the camera appears at the trial.

Permissive states

While almost every state allows cameras in some proceedings - and 37 permit them at criminal trials - a 56-year-old rule promulgated by judges and approved by Congress bars the filming of trials in federal court.

A change in the rule would require an act of Congress or an amendment by the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary's 27-judge policymaking body. Legislation to allow individual federal judges to decide whether to permit cameras in their court- rooms languished in Congress in 2000 and was reintroduced last year.

"The best way to maintain confidence and a better understanding of the judicial system," said bill co-sponsor Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, "is to let the sun shine in by opening up the courtroom to public consumption through broadcasting."

Educating on big issues

Supporters say televised trials have also brought attention to complex social problems including drunken driving, child abuse, and domestic violence. In this case, Court TV promises to obscure the identity of any witness afraid to appear on television.

Those arguments haven't persuaded judges on the Judicial Conference, who have repeatedly voted to uphold the ban on cameras at trials. One exception is federal appeals courts, where no witnesses or jurors are involved. Two of those courts have opted to allow filming. Also, the conference did briefly authorize cameras in federal civil trials in the early 1990s.

But conference member Edward Becker, chief judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, says he doesn't expect the conference to approve cameras in criminal trials anytime soon. "I don't see it happening," says Mr. Becker. "The integrity of the trial process is compromised."

Miami criminal-defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn, who has argued against cameras before the US Supreme Court, says filming magnifies the personalities of lawyers and witnesses.

"The jurors wind up being misled by the persona appearing before them," says Mr. Hirschhorn. "Even as despicable a person as that defendant, whether it's Jack the Ripper or [Osama] bin Laden, is entitled to a fair trial, and televising a trial distorts that capacity."

While Moussaoui's attorneys did file a motion supporting cameras at the trial, they opposed Court TV's motion to broadcast pretrial proceedings, fearful that potential jurors may see evidence that is later excluded at trial.

An audience far beyond the Virginia courtroom will be able to watch the trial, even if it isn't broadcast. As in the federal trial of Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh, Congress is authorizing closed-circuit TV viewing for families of Sept. 11 victims.

The Justice Department will likely have to set up multiple viewing stations for thousands of victims' relatives during the trial. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in late September, and the trial is slated for Oct. 14.

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