This Camera Should Blink

PBS shouldn't be able to televise a jury deliberation

Producers at the PBS show "Frontline" have asked a Texas judge to let them put a camera in the jury deliberation room of a death-penalty court trial. The judge said yes, but the selection of jurors was halted last week after prosecutors appealed his decision.

TV cameras have been allowed in most state courtrooms for years, but jurors have generally been protected from such publicity. The defense attorneys who agreed to this idea say jurors would forget about a camera once they started talking. The "Frontline" producers say the public deserves to be educated about how a jury decides a death-penalty case. Texas was chosen because of its high number of executions.

But before this experiment spreads into a new brand of reality TV, this encroachment on one of the bedrocks of democracy must be carefully weighed. Even journalists know that many institutions, including their newsrooms, wouldn't function if a TV camera were put on every meeting.

Juries as check on government

Serving on a jury, along with the act of voting in elections, are the two main ways under the Constitution for the common citizen to act as a check on government. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted: "The jury is both the most effective way of establishing the people's rule and the most efficient way of teaching them how to rule."

Trial by jury is guaranteed three times in the Constitution, and more than a million Americans serve on juries each year. They are asked to overcome their prejudices and together decide a right, and just, verdict in a trial.

Juries bring community sentiment and their conscience to the rule of law. They can correct the errors of government officials, and in fact are mediators between a defendant, the judge, and the prosecutor.

Jurors generally take their duty seriously, in bringing reason and judgment to the facts of a case, . They have only one case to decide, and are aware they must decide with others, not just by themselves. They must act without being shamed or ridiculed by a TV audience parsing their every word. Each jury's verdict must be seen as final.

Jurors must feel immune from public scrutiny. It's tough enough trying to reach a unanimous agreement with people you barely know.

As involuntary, temporary civil servants, their privacy must be honored along with their concerns about reprisals, either real or perceived.

"Frontline" might as well be asking to put a camera in a voting booth as well as in a jury room.

TV camera may curb frankness

A public right to know what government is doing generally stops at the courts. The Constitution sees courts as a legal, not a political, body. Justice must be free of public pressure. Jurors being watched on TV who change their positions might be seen as coming under outside influence. Under a camera's eye, jurors may be less frank in searching all angles of a case.

What must be public in a trial are the facts of the case. What must be private in the jury room is a juror's reasoning.

Jurors, of course, are free to talk after being discharged. Journalists can then ask how a jury reached a decision, although a juror should be hesitant to talk about fellow jurors.

Juries are so inviolate that they have a right to acquit a defendant even if guilt is obvious. In fact, perhaps a jury that's been empaneled - not a judge - should decide whether a TV camera is present in its deliberations. That would not be a wise choice, but it's probably within a jury's power.

In the Texas case, the lower court judge rejected potential jurors who objected to letting "Frontline" kibitz their work; 14 of 110 potential jurors have already said they have such concerns, skewing the makeup of the jury toward those who might play to the camera rather than seek justice in a life-and-death case.

One trend in juries these days is that individual jurors have a number instead of a name to prevent possible reprisals. A camera in the jury room would only make it more difficult to safeguard juries from reprisals.

"Frontline" does have the choice to interview jurors after the trial. But it should not record and then televise a jury deliberation. Juries are a cornerstone of justice and jurors are a pillar of direct democracy.

"Frontline" has produced many thoughtful, provocative, documentaries. It should leave this one alone.

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