TV Cameras Belong in the Simpson Courtroom


Washington. -- An angry Judge Lance Ito has called a hearing for November 7 to determine whether he should throw television cameras out of the courtroom during the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

Despite the clamorous pile of mail inspired by a few grandstanding print journalists, Judge Ito ought to forget the idea of imposing a television blackout for these reasons:

1) The cameras in the courtroom are in no way responsible for the outrageous and erroneous television and newspaper stories that have irritated Judge Ito, Mr. Simpson's defense lawyers and in some cases the prosecution.

Emotional stories about Mr. Simpson as a wife-beater, erroneous stories about Nicole Simpson's blood being on O.J.'s socks, lurid stories about extramarital affairs by both Nicole and O.J., and other leaks may make a fair trial very difficult to achieve, but that is no reason to deny the people a chance to watch the trial on TV cameras that are not offensive or dangerous.

2) The international media circus outside the courthouse is not caused by CNN or Court TV coverage, both of which have operated in ways that do not lessen the dignity of the court.

3) Mr. Simpson is entitled to a speedy, public trial before a jury of his peers. "Public" now means, in a case like this, a national, even international community. Television enables millions of people to see and judge witnesses and weigh evidence themselves. It enhances national tranquility and eases racial polarization when Americans do not have to rely on second-hand versions of what happened in the courtroom.

4) Television coverage provides America and the world with fascinating illustrations of what the Bill of Rights and the rest of the U.S. Constitution really mean. It would be almost criminal to deny lawyers and law students a chance to see the courtroom jousting over Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures.

Through television we can ponder what value the jury should give to witnesses who already have used their First Amendment right to give -- or sell -- television interviews and magazine stories about some aspect of this bizarre case.

Every American will learn something important about the role that racial passion will play in this case. We need to hear the lawyers and scientists battle over whether DNA is still part witchcraft, or so reliable that a decision regarding guilt in a

murder case can be based on it.

Only by seeing the proceedings for ourselves, on television, can we make a reasonably-informed decision as to whether the jury system has been hopelessly corrupted in America.

5) Many journalists, myself among them, will write many columns and do radio and television commentaries about this trial, the judge's demeanor, the performances of individual lawyers, the veracity of police witnesses and O.J.'s testimony or his failure to take the stand. It is eminently desirable that we write on the basis of what we have seen, not a summary provided by some reporter whose skill and reliability are not known to us.

6) This case illustrates more graphically and painfully than any I recall just how diverse the media in America are, and how wide the gap is between those who are responsible and those who are crassly irresponsible. This case will remind us that the guy I regard as an unprincipled money-grubber is as protected by the First Amendment as I am.

In a high-profile trial featuring high-tech evidence, we must not restrict coverage to the pencil-and-pad technology of the Clarence Darrow era. It would be best if, having cooled down, Judge Ito canceled the November 7 hearing and went on with the business of getting the real trial under way.

8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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