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Why has Maryland court trial footage of 'Serial' subject Adnan Syed rarely been broadcast?

HBO aired the first episode last week of its four-part documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” which includes rarely seen footage from the Baltimore County man’s 1999 trial for the killing of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee.

Syed’s trial footage is not usually available to the public. Here’s why:

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No cameras in Maryland trials

Maryland Code for criminal procedures prohibits members of the public, including news media, from recording or broadcasting any criminal matter during a trial, hearing, motion or argument that is held in court or before a grand jury. The law does not apply to a court’s in-house recording of the trial.

However, reporters can ask in advance for the express permission of the presiding judge to record a circuit court proceeding, according to Maryland Rule 16-208.

Court-produced footage cannot usually be shared

In Baltimore, reporters can view the court’s video recordings by sitting at the desk of a courthouse staffer. Audio CDs can be purchased, but cannot be shared even after a case has concluded.

HBO did not respond to messages requesting an explanation about how it was able to broadcast the court-produced footage.

Court officials previously considered holding producers of the widely popular podcast “Serial” — which centered on Lee’s death and Syed’s case — in contempt of court for broadcasting audio of the trial.

Producer Sarah Koenig said at the time she received incorrect legal advice about the state's rules on courtroom audio, which the court accepted after Koenig agreed she would not broadcast court proceedings in the future.

There is an effort to change the law.

Two Maryland lawmakers, Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County and Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, have introduced legislation that would allow media organizations to have cameras in courtrooms during sentencing hearings. If the bill becomes law, news organizations would be able to request permission to have a camera in court at least 24 hours before a criminal sentencing.

The judge in the case then would decide whether to allow cameras. The judge could limit the number of cameras allowed and require the media outlets to share their footage. The judge also could set limits on what can be recorded and broadcast, such as not filming a victim impact statement at the victim’s request.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents newspapers and news websites, generally supports efforts to open more government functions — including court hearings — to cameras, said Rebecca Snyder, the group’s executive director, in February.

Video footage can help journalists in reporting on court decisions, Snyder said at the time.

“It is so powerful to help explain the context,” she said.

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