TV Allowed to Tape Trial of 2 Wescott Employees
After three days of argument in three courtrooms before three judges, a Glendale Municipal Court judge has ruled that a religious broadcasting network has the right to videotape the assault and battery trial of two employees of television preacher Eugene Scott’s Wescott Christian Center in Glendale.
The offices of the Glendale city attorney and the county district attorney asked that the camera be kept out of the courtroom because of a possible threat to the safety of Glendale police officers who will be called to testify. The City of Glendale and its Police Department have had disputes with Scott and his followers and city officials said they fear more trouble if the officers’ faces and home addresses become well-known through television broadcasts.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Herb Lapin challenged the right of what he said was a solely religious-programming network to videotape the proceedings under the guise of news media coverage.
Nevertheless, Municipal Judge Barbara Lee Burke, the third judge to hear the matter, ruled that the camera could stay. “This court has no interest in conducting a Star Chamber proceeding or excluding the media,” Burke said.
The controversy began as a routine pretrial hearing into misdemeanor assault and battery charges last week but quickly escalated into a prolonged legal battle called “a circus” by Lapin and “the height of fascism” by a defense attorney.
At issue was the right of University Network to videotape court proceedings stemming from an alleged fight that took place on April 30 in downtown Glendale a block from the Wescott Christian Center, which Scott heads. University Network, which is operated by Wescott Christian Center Churches, is a national cable and satellite religious-broadcasting network that features videotaped sermons by Scott.
Joseph Shackelford and Larry Dudley, employees at Wescott Christian Center, are accused of beating up Donald Nicoloff, a musician who formerly worked for Scott, in a dispute over back pay that Nicoloff claimed the center owed him. According to a police report, Nicoloff was attacked by the two men, shoved into a plate-glass window at a business on the 800 block of East Broadway, then knocked to the ground and kicked.
Nicoloff suffered cuts and bruises and a temporary loss of vision in his right eye.
Jury to Be Selected
Shackelford and Dudley, both of Pasadena, each face charges of assault with a deadly weapon (hands and feet), battery and malicious mischief. Jury selection is expected to conclude this week.
In arguing to prevent University Network from taping the trial, Lapin alluded to threats that were allegedly made against Glendale police officers who involved in a 1980 controversy with Scott’s church.
The church had filed a $77-million lawsuit accusing police officers of violating the civil rights of three church employees. The suit stemmed from the arrest at the center of a church employee police suspected of being a burglar. The suit and the charges against the employee were dropped.
Lapin said police received threatening phone calls from Scott’s followers after the minister’s criticism of the 1980 incident during broadcasts of his religious program. In one broadcast, Lapin said, Scott used a stick to beat stuffed monkeys labeled Glendale Police Department.
Besides Lapin’s argument that cameras would intimidate witnesses, Deputy City Atty. Steven Weitz told the court: “Police officers fear, and have expressed those feelings to the police chief and the city attorney’s office, that there will be some sort of retaliatory conduct against the Police Department and the officers. What form that may take, we do not know.”
Under California rules of court, which limit electronic-media coverage to one television camera that shares its footage with other media, a judge can refuse to allow a camera in a courtroom “in the interests of justice to protect the rights of parties and the dignity of the court or to assure the orderly conduct of the proceedings.”
Defense attorneys Edward L. Masry and Gerald F. Uelman argued that University Network had a legitimate First Amendment right to record the proceedings and that the camera would not be a hindrance to testimony.
Judge Burke agreed. “I am not particularly impressed by the beating of stuffed animals on TV,” the judge said. “That doesn’t indicate any human being is in danger.”
To Lapin’s contention that University Network was “basically a 24-hour religious network serving no news function whatsoever,” Masry countered that the network has covered numerous incidents where religious freedom, a newsworthy topic, has been jeopardized.
‘Public Entitled to Know’
Church officials, Masry said, “believe this entire matter is a situation where the City of Glendale, because the church refuses to bow to the king, has decided to get back at the church. The public is entitled to know what is happening with authenticity in the courtroom.”
Lapin and Weitz said they would not appeal Burke’s decision.
Weitz said in an interview this week: “Judge Burke appeared to have followed all the conditions set forth in Rule 980 of the California rules of court. We would have had very little basis in which to attempt to have a writ issued against her that would require removal of the cameras.”
Lapin said out of court that he was not pleased with the judge’s decision and still fears that some reprisal could result. “The more exposure this gets, the more chance there is of finding that one person with a screw loose who would do something,” he said.
The pretrial hearing for Dudley and Shackelford began June 5 before Commissioner Daniel F. Calabro but got sidetracked when Lapin objected to Masry’s request to allow the camera. Calabro ruled that University Network could record the proceedings.
But the next day the city attorney’s office joined Lapin in a second attempt to keep the camera out of the courtroom. Weitz had asked Calabro to halt the proceedings so the city attorney’s office could appeal the ruling. Calabro, who said he was becoming “impatient with this media problem,” refused.
“We’re going to have media coverage and we’re going to go forward with these motions unless we get a restraining order from a higher court,” Calabro told Weitz.
No restraining order was handed down, but the hearing before Calabro did not proceed either. Lapin refused to let the defense enter new pretrial motions. Calabro called Lapin’s action “an attempt to pull the rug out” but declared that he did not have the time to hear the case in “bits and pieces.” He transfered the case to Commissioner Cheryl Krott’s courtroom.
‘We Are Ready’
Defense attorneys Uelman and Masry argued against the move, saying that it would only give the prosecution another chance to rehash the television camera controversy.
“We are ready. We want to go forward,” Uelman told Calabro. “But the district attorney and city attorney’s office want to shove us all over this courthouse.”
The camera controversy began anew when the bailiff in Krott’s courtroom refused to allow the camera crew to set up its equipment. Krott, who said her calendar was full, listened briefly to the defense arguments before scheduling the hearing to continue in Judge Burke’s courtroom.