Cameras in the jury room fuel capital debate
A Texas inmate awaits trial, and a judge ponders how sacred secret juries really are.
HOUSTON — Two days after his 17th birthday, prosecutors say, Cedric Harrison blasted a man in the chest with a shotgun and stole his car. But in a county that's grown used to a steady stream of death-row prosecutions, the crime and subsequent charge of capital murder garnered little attention - until PBS's "Frontline" was given permission to film the trial, including jury deliberations.
Now, Mr. Harrison's fate is being overshadowed by the clamor of arguments over whether cameras should ever be allowed into jury rooms. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard the case last week, and a decision is expected soon.
It would not be the first time that deliberations were filmed: Similar documentaries have been made in Arizona and Wisconsin courts. But this would be the first filming of a death-penalty jury. And that fact is giving the controversial issue a whole new life.
Indeed, the death penalty - and the judicial process leading to it - is under unprecedented attack, highlighted last week when Gov. George Ryan emptied Illinois's death row, saying the sys-tem makes too many mistakes.
That, say some experts, is exactly why cameras should be allowed in jury rooms: to document the process and let the public decide if it's working, in a mass deliberation of its own.
"Houston has been labeled the death-penalty capital of the world," says Ricardo Rodriguez, one of Harrison's lawyers. "The public needs to understand why we are killing so many people."
Since the country was founded, secret jury deliberations have been an accepted, even sacred, part of the judicial process. But many states, like Texas, do not have a specific law that says cameras aren't allowed in.
That's prompted television journalists to pursue the issue. "Frontline," the award-winning documentary series, initially received the go-ahead from Texas District Judge Ted Poe in November, but the prosecution raised concerns during jury selection and appealed his decision.
"We have ... a huge debate over the propriety of putting people to death," said Poe's attorney, Chip Babcock, in last week's arguments. "We are better off as a society if we can see our citizens perform a duty that is literally life and death." But the Harris County District Attorney's Office countered that a camera might corrupt deliberations, inspiring some jurors to "grandstand," or intimidating others.
One appellate judge seemed to agree that cameras would make a mockery of the process. "I fear ... we're going to reduce jury deliberations to reality TV, like 'Survivor,' " said Judge Tom Price.
But the experiment has been tried in other courts. In 1985, PBS filmed jury deliberations in a Wisconsin criminal case and aired them on "Frontline" a year later. In 1996, CBS filmed three Phoenix criminal trials, complete with jury deliberations, for "Enter the Jury Room." And last June, after 18 months of filming in Phoenix, ABC premiered a five-part series called "State v.," with jury-room footage.
In both the CBS and ABC cases, the Arizona Supreme Court waived the rule forbidding any interference with the jury.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mike McVey was one of the judges involved in the ABC filming. He presided over a second-degree murder trial and says he would not participate in another such experiment. While there were no serious problems, he sees the cameras as a negative.
"I think it tends to inhibit some jurors," says Judge McVey. "And ... [there is] the occasional juror who sees it as an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame, posturing and performing in front of the video cameras. Both are dangerous." He suspects that the cameras may have contributed to the case's hung jury. Without cameras during the second trial, the jury came back with a guilty verdict in under an hour.
Though no one acknowledged the cameras affected their decisions, says Mr. McVey, "we are human beings who are susceptible to feeling uncomfortable.... I'm a judge, and I'm very conscious of cameras in the courtroom. They affect the way I speak and my statements - probably more than they should."
But Judge Michael Ryan found a different reaction among jurors in a vehicular-manslaughter trial he presided over for "State v."
"What they told me afterwards is that they became so used to the cameras that they weren't even aware they were there," says Judge Ryan, now a justice on the Arizona Supreme Court. "And when I heard some of their comments during deliberations, I believed them." For instance, he says, one juror asked the others: "Who hasn't smoked marijuana at some point in their life?" Another mentioned that her uncle drank a quart of vodka every day.
That type of unencumbered speech was also found in a study of Arizona's new civil-court rule allowing jurors to discuss evidence before trials end. In 50 trials, cameras were mounted in jury rooms to see how the rule would affect a case's outcome.
"While it wasn't like the jurors were oblivious to the cameras, long periods of time would go by when they were never mentioned. And they were pretty free in what they'd say," says Mary Rose, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who helped with the study. "We couldn't say the cameras had no effect - but it wasn't very strong."
In the end, legal experts say, it's hard to tell how cameras affect juries because they've been allowed in so rarely. Experts also say that in a capital case, the process has unparalleled gravity.
Harrison's mother, Lily Williams, couldn't agree more. In giving "Frontline" her permission to film, she said: "The state of Texas is attempting to kill my 17-year-old son. I think the whole world ought to be watching."
Even if Ms. Williams doesn't get her wish, the issue is bound to come up elsewhere. Maricopa County Superior Court officials say they met with "Frontline" this summer and gave initial approval for filming deliberations in a death-penalty case there.