On The Sun's front page Wednesday was a moment-of-verdict, full-color picture of a clenched-fists O. J Simpson, flanked by F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran, with Robert Shapiro in the deep background. It was a perfect complement to the reporting and commentary. It added a lot to readers' sense of the story in all of its dimensions.
If the O. J. trial had taken place in Maryland, you would not have seen that picture. There would have been no pictures of any sort from inside the courtroom. No still photographs in newspapers and magazines. No television coverage. There would have been no audio recording for radio. All that is allowed in most states but is against the law in Maryland. Most of the state's judges seem to favor letting cameras inside courtrooms during criminal trials, but the legislature has outlawed it. (It is conditionally allowed in appeals courts and in civil trials in the state.)
Some criticize the practice as bad for the legal system. It intimidates witnesses and jurors, or makes them too self-conscious; it causes lawyers and judges to showboat, politick and drag proceedings out. The O. J. Simpson trial is the critics' Exhibit A. But after a visit to the Simpson trial, former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburg said he saw no such effect on anyone. "The camera was very unobtrusive," he said. "All the circus atmosphere was created outside the courtroom."
This trial did drag on longer than necessary, but that's California: the Manson trial lasted nine months and the "Hillside Stangler" trial lasted 23 months -- and neither was televised.
It is insufficient to say that television cameras and newspaper photographers do no harm to trial proceedings. We favor access because we believe that gives the American public a better understanding of the way courts and the law work. As Professor John Langbein of Yale Law School has put it, referring to the Simpson trial: "Those cameras are an absolute godsend because the public has been educated to think that criminal trials are what they saw on Perry Mason, and it ain't true. What's showing is the way the system really works."