WASHINGTON — The video of James Holmes from inside the Arapahoe County Courthouse was as mesmerizing as it was creepy. His fluorescent mop of pink and orange hair. His vacant eyes, alternately bulging and droopy. Was he medicated? Crazy? Vamping for the camera? And the question, unbidden and against journalistic interest: Should we really be seeing this? Is justice best served by having a camera in this courtroom?
I believe it is, but I also believe this is a question worth discussing. Cameras have become such a fixture of the modern legal system that we scarcely pause to register their presence, except when the images are as jarring as those from Colorado or the proceedings as soap operatic as in the O.J. Simpson trial.
Nearly all states allow cameras in court; 44 permit them in criminal trials, although 10 of those on only a limited basis, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. Even the fusty federal courts are experimenting with allowing cameras, albeit in a limited number of places, only in civil trials and when the parties agree.
One place cameras won't be: at Holmes' next court hearing, on Monday. Responding to a request from Holmes' lawyers, Judge William Sylvester ordered that the session be closed to cameras.
From the judicial viewpoint, keeping cameras out of court represents the path of fewest potential problems — lessening, if not eliminating, defendants' complaints about adverse pretrial publicity.
But the additional intrusion and disruption presented by cameras in court is minimal. Cameras were first booted from courts after the circus atmosphere coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial in 1935, with 130 cameramen jockeying for position and spectators posing for pictures in the witness chair and jury box. Two years later, the American Bar Association inserted a ban on cameras in court in its judicial ethics code.
Now, though, the disruption factor is minimal; modern cameras are unobtrusive and footage can be shared through a pooling arrangement. Legitimate concerns for witness safety can be easily accommodated in individual cases, with cameras turned off or faces blurred.
If witnesses — or lawyers, or judges even — mug for the cameras, so be it. However, according to a 1994 analysis by the Federal Judicial Center, judges and lawyers participating in an earlier pilot program reported “small or no effects of camera presence on participants in the proceedings, courtroom decorum, or the administration of justice.”
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