Televising trials: in the public good?

If Baltimore Officer William Porter's trial had been televised, more people might understand the outcome.

The trial of Baltimore Police Officer William Porter generated worldwide publicity, and more than 100 journalists vied for a courthouse seat. Yet despite all the coverage, misconceptions and inaccuracies about the trial continue unabated, feeding public anxiety.

Many believe that Officer Porter "got off" on criminal charges connected to his role in the death of Freddie Gray because the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision after two weeks of testimony, arguments and legal instruction. That's a difficult result for many to appreciate, especially when they didn't see evidence the jurors saw.

If the trial had been televised, perhaps we'd all have a greater understanding. A trial is meant to be a search for the truth. And the truth is best served by allowing a trial to be seen by the public, unfiltered by advocates, reporters and pundits. This is even more important in the age of social media when advocates for one side or the other try to seize control of the message by disseminating (dis)information through Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. Nothing speaks the truth better than the unvarnished eye of the camera.

It is time for Maryland to change Criminal Procedure Article 1-201 and court Rule 16-109 to allow public criminal trials to be exactly that — public. A bill now before the state legislature would allow cameras in courtrooms during the sentencing phase of criminal cases, after a defendant has been tried and convicted. That's a step in the right direction, but it's not far enough. The benefits of a gavel-to-gavel televised criminal trial in keeping the public informed outweigh the arguments against cameras in the courtroom. There are tried and true protections to ensure jurors' anonymity and measures to protect recalcitrant witnesses.

Sixteen years ago, I covered the trial of four white, plain-clothes NYPD officers accused of second-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. They had fired 41 shots at Diallo; 19 struck him. The officers mistakenly believed Diallo was pulling out a gun when, in fact, he was reaching for his wallet.

In New York City, the hostility against the officers was so acute at the time that an appellate court felt justified in moving the venue from the Bronx upstate to Albany just weeks before the trial. On Jan. 26, 2000, on the eve of jury selection, New York Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi, who presided over the trial, granted the motion of my employer, Court TV, to televise the trial.

There is no doubt that the public benefited from watching the Diallo trial. The jury, composed of four black jurors, including the foreperson, and eight white jurors, acquitted the officers not only of murder but also of reckless endangerment. While there were protests and arrests after the verdict, the city was basically peaceful. The public watched the testimony of witnesses, the rulings by the judge and the arguments of the attorneys, all of which contributed greatly to understanding the verdict. At a press conference following the verdict, then-Mayor Rudy Giuiliani praised Court TV and the presence of a camera for shining a light on the process, which in turn kept peace in the community.

The vast majority of states allow cameras at some level, including Maryland, which allows cameras under certain circumstances in civil trials and appellate arguments. However, dozens of states allow cameras at criminal trials. Maryland should join them. Its citizens deserve to watch their justice system at work.

Beth Karas was an assistant district attorney in New York City for eight years after which she covered trials for 19 years as a correspondent for Court TV, later renamed In Session on truTV. She currently operates a website, KarasOnCrime.com.

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