Cameras in the Court Are Again Focus of Debate : Trials: Most Ventura County judges routinely allow media photography, but some attorneys say it can interfere with defendants' right to an impartial jury.


With every click of the shutter, Jean L. Farley grew angrier.

A Ventura County judge had permitted two newspaper photographers and a television crew to take courtroom photos of her client, a young Mexican woman accused of killing her newborn son.

"The image that's portrayed is one of a guilty person in shackles and jail clothing," said Farley, Ventura County assistant public defender. She said the photos could prevent her client from getting a fair trial by prejudicing potential jurors.

But Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones denied Farley's plea to stop the photographers during a hearing Oct. 25.

"I think the public has a legitimate interest in seeing and hearing what goes on in court," Jones said later.

As the Florida rape trial of William Kennedy Smith began to unfold last week on television, a decades-long debate resumed over cameras in the courtroom. In Ventura County, the public defender's office and several private defense attorneys say they fear that cameras--allowed in California courts since 1984--can unfairly hurt a defendant.

But many judges and prosecutors as well as other defense lawyers disagree. Among them is Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who says he generally favors camera coverage of court proceedings to enhance public understanding of the criminal justice system.

"I think a photo adds to the story," he said. "It makes it come alive for the public."

Bradbury discounts the notion that photos prejudice potential jurors.

"I don't think the public jumps to the conclusion that an arrest means a person is automatically guilty," he said.

The county's judges--with one notable exception--said they usually approve media requests for photo coverage in the belief that the public has a right to see, not just read about, what goes on in court.

"The press stands in the shoes of the public," Municipal Court Judge Barry B. Klopfer said. "The average man on the street has better things to do than search through courtrooms. He looks to the media to find out what's important in the legal system."

And the Superior Court's presiding judge, Edwin M. Osborne, said he has sensed none of the prejudicial effects cited by opponents of courtroom photography.

"I just haven't seen it in fact be a problem," Osborne said. "The fact of the matter is, when you poll prospective jurors, the overwhelming majority will not recognize anybody in the courtroom no matter how many times one or more of the people have had their face on the front page of the newspaper or on TV."

But several Ventura County defense attorneys insist that cameras can undermine a defendant's rights, both before and during a trial.

"We're concerned about the jury being distracted from its fact-finding mission," said Duane Dammeyer, another assistant public defender. "We're concerned about witnesses 'performing' as opposed to telling what really happened."

In past cases, Farley said, she has had to disqualify potentially good jurors because they were tainted by published photos of the defendant.

She said such photos discriminate against poor clients, such as Maria Francisca Jimenez Sanchez, the farm worker accused of killing her newborn son by dumping him into a portable toilet.

"They have the bailiff in uniform standing next to her, making her look like some kind of heinous criminal, when in fact all that is happening is she doesn't have $250,000 to bail out," Farley said. If Sanchez were not in custody and wore street clothes to court appearances, Farley said, the photos would not be as prejudicial.

Farley and other attorneys said courtroom photos can ruin people even if they are eventually acquitted.

But that argument carries little weight with Julie Scopazzi, assignment editor for KEYT news in Santa Barbara.

"If it turns out they are falsely accused, we will cover that, too," Scopazzi said. "Viewers have a right to see who you're talking about."

When a judge denies camera coverage, Scopazzi said, it often forces her news crews to chase people down hallways to get the footage they need.

"It makes us feel like the animals everyone accuses us of being," she said. "But we'll do what we have to do to get the pictures. Like it or not, it's TV. You have to have pictures."

Bob Carey, director of photography for The Times' Ventura County Edition, said he believes it is extremely unlikely that photos of a defendant can compromise fair-trial rights.

"I think the defense attorneys are grasping at straws," Carey said. "They are trying to find technicalities that might get a conviction overturned."

He said most news photographers dislike courtroom assignments because bad lighting and awkward camera angles often make for poor photos. But he believes photo coverage is important.

"I think taxpayers, and readers, are worried about crime," Carey said. "A lot of them are worried about what's going on in the criminal justice system."

The only Ventura County judge who routinely denies media requests to photograph court proceedings is Lawrence Storch, the Superior Court's senior judge.

"My concern for the defendant's right to privacy is the basis" for his policy, Storch said. Defendants, especially those in custody, "are in a situation over which they have no control," Storch said. He said he bars cameras if the defense or prosecution objects to them, and no reason has to be given for the objection.

Maintaining the court's dignity is another reason to bar photography, Storch said.

"I think it demeans the atmosphere of the courtroom," he said. "The tendency is to promote a carnival atmosphere. . . . Still cameras and television cameras detract from the seriousness of the proceedings."

Concern about cameras disrupting a court proceeding dates to the 1935 trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the Lindbergh baby kidnaping. Extensive media coverage of the case prompted the American Bar Assn. to adopt a rule recommending that no cameras or broadcasting equipment be allowed in court.

Some jurisdictions, however, ignored the recommendation. Then, in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Texas fraud conviction of Billie Sol Estes because of television coverage. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that television coverage was likely to prejudice jurors and was "inherently lacking in due process."

In subsequent years, however, improved technology made still cameras and television equipment smaller, quieter and less intrusive. Florida conducted a one-year experiment allowing cameras in the courts, and in 1981 the high court reversed itself. Unanimously upholding the conviction of two Florida burglary suspects, the court freed the states to set their own rules on camera coverage.

"The risk of juror prejudice is present in any publication of a trial," the 1981 ruling said. The legal remedy, the court said, was for the defendant to demonstrate that media coverage had compromised the ability of his particular jury to be fair.

That sounds fine on paper, Farley said, but in practice it is all but impossible to prove such prejudice, especially before a trial.

"I would have to come before the court and say that statistics show that 99% of the people in this county read such-and-such a paper, and that 80% of the jury pool saw a particular photo," she said. "Then I'd have to have a psychiatrist testify that 75% of the people will develop a negative imagery as the result of seeing this person in jail blues.

"That is the kind of testimony you're going to need. It's cost-prohibitive, and it may not exist."

Municipal Judge Ken W. Riley agreed that proving such prejudice is "a pretty heavy burden" for the defense.

But "in the absence of a strong showing of prejudice, you as the press have a right to be there, and to take pictures if you want to," Riley said. He said that in reviewing convictions, appeal courts have given little weight to claims that publicity prejudiced a jury.

Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren sees a danger in barring cameras from the courtroom.

"Anything that deprives the public of the opportunity to witness a public trial undermines the system itself," Perren said. "Anything that smacks of hiding, withholding or secreting something suggests nefarious doings in the courthouse."

Judge Klopfer acknowledged that in highly publicized cases, jury selection is more difficult.

"It will generally take a longer time to select a jury, and it will take a larger pool of prospective jurors," Klopfer said.

"But you have to keep that in perspective. The fair trial is a very precious and important right . . . but the public's right to know is also a very cherished and important right.

"Look at the alternative," Klopfer said. "In various countries, people are taken off in the night by police and nobody knows what happens to them."

As a Municipal Court judge, Klopfer often presides at arraignments and preliminary hearings that occur in the early stages of a criminal case. Occasionally, the victim or another witness has not yet identified the suspect in a lineup. In such cases, Klopfer and other Municipal Court judges said they will ban cameras to prevent the witness from being influenced by a published photo.

Bradbury said his deputies sometimes ask a judge not to allow photos of a victim or witness.

"For example, we don't want rape victims or child molestation victims photographed," he said, adding that some gang cases also raise concerns. "The court typically can fashion an order that properly balances the public's right to know with the interests of the criminal justice system."

Some judges said they share Storch's concern about cameras disrupting the courtroom. On several occasions in the past year, judges have signaled photographers to stop shooting when, in the judges' opinion, they had taken enough shots and were becoming a distraction.

"All of the judges try to maintain a certain dignity to the proceedings," Jones said. "But we're all different in assessing what that dignity is."

The most disruptive proceeding he can recall in his court, Jones said, was a hearing in April when the district attorney's office dropped its well-publicized murder case against David W. Sconce, accused of poisoning a business rival with oleander.

"That was a media event," Jones said. "I could hardly hear myself think for all the whirring and clicking of cameras. But as distracting and disruptive as it was, it was not inappropriate given the nature of the proceeding. In almost every other proceeding, it would be inappropriate."

In that case, there was no danger of influencing a jury because the charges were being dropped. But a few days after Sconce's release, cameras in the courtroom became an issue during the trial of Timothy J. Velasco, who was eventually convicted of murdering his fiancee.

With the jury present, Velasco bounded out of his chair and took a swing at a news photographer sitting in the front row of spectators. Deputy Public Defender William McGuffey said Velasco thought the photographer was laughing at him.

Rule 980 of the California Rules of Court, adopted in 1984, gives judges wide latitude in deciding whether to permit camera coverage: "The court may refuse, limit or terminate film or electronic coverage in the interests of justice to protect the rights of the parties and the dignity of the court. . . ."

Before the rule was adopted, a state-financed study was conducted to determine whether cameras in the courts disrupted proceedings or affected the behavior of participants. After surveying participants in more than 200 proceedings, the researchers found virtually no disruption and little impact on the behavior of judges, jurors, witnesses or attorneys. Half of the judges surveyed said the coverage had no effect and another 20% said it had a positive effect.

One notable group was not surveyed: the defendants. Louis Samonsky Jr., a Ventura defense attorney, said his clients uniformly resent camera coverage.

"They are going through one of the worst times of their life," Samonsky said. "It's an aggravation that most clients are not equipped emotionally to handle. . . . They ask, 'Is there any way to stop them from doing this?' "

Those who favor such coverage would feel differently if they had to endure it, he said.

"If it happened to . . . the viewer, the TV crew, the prosecutor or the judge, they would have a different position," Samonsky said. "If a very close loved one of theirs was wrongly accused and paraded before the camera, they would have a different opinion."

But not all defense attorneys oppose photography in the courts.

"I'm all in favor of it," said Joseph D. O'Neill Jr., an Oxnard attorney. "It keeps the system honest."

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