The Maryland court system considered allowing cameras in criminal trials last night, weighing impassioned testimony from journalists arguing for the public's right to know against trial lawyers' and victims advocates' arguments for privacy protection.
The state judiciary is tackling the matter because of budding interest among legislators to explore greater media access in criminal proceedings. Bills to allow cameras in criminal courts have been discussed in the past two General Assembly sessions but failed on both occasions in the House Judiciary Committee.
Last night, a broadcast journalists association urged an ad-hoc panel of six judges to consider an 18-month trial period to see how cameras affect courtrooms. State law allows cameras in civil cases and appellate court hearings, but allows only reporters with notebooks into criminal trials.
Ultimately, journalists said, they would like to see Maryland adopt a policy used in 19 other states, including Virginia, that allows trial judges to decide whether to allow cameras in their courtrooms. Fifteen other states leave the decision to trial judges but make mandatory exceptions under certain circumstances, such as cases involving sex crimes.
"I'm sad to say, Maryland lags far behind the majority of states in its permissiveness," said James B. Astrachan, an attorney representing the Maryland D.C. Delaware Broadcasters Association. "The Constitution demands a fair trial. Televising a trial makes it more accessible, more public ... more fair."
But victims advocates and trial lawyers told the judges that cameras would have a chilling effect on victims' testimony. Lawyers with the Maryland Bar Association and the state's Office of the Public Defender worried about tainting prospective jurors.
"The media wants to control what the public sees. When they get back to the editing room, they can very much control what comes out. You can unfairly influence what people think by highlighting only certain parts of a trial," said Kelly Casper, a district public defender for Harford County who spoke on behalf of the Office of the Public Defender.
Pauline Mandel, director of legal services at the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, said the prospect of testimony being aired on TV would frighten witnesses in gang, sex-crime and child-victim cases and compromise some witnesses' safety.
Journalists argued that televising criminal proceedings would act as an important check and balance, and they said the judiciary should not be impervious to cameras, considering that they are allowed in the proceedings of the two other branches of government.
"Yes, but there, someone's life and liberty are not at stake," countered Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr.
The judges panel is expected to make recommendations to the state Court of Appeals by Feb. 1.