ANNAPOLIS – Now that the cameras and lights have faded out on the O.J. Simpson trial, what are the chances of turning them on in Maryland’s criminal courts?
In the last two years, legislators debated the issue and gave it a thumbs down.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), co-sponsor of a 1995 bill to allow the recording or broadcasting of criminal trials, has since backpedaled.
“We had a hearing and it went down big time,” said Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“I didn’t support the idea,” Vallario added, unless all parties — the judge, lawyers and witnesses — were in complete agreement to allow television coverage.
While the issue is in a legislative stall, at least some judges and lawyers think there could be a place for cameras in court as long as judges retain the option to pull the plug. Television, they say, could actually repair the tattered image of justice that many Americans have in Simpson’s wake.
One Baltimore jurist thinks broadcasts might dispel the notion that Judge Lance Ito’s was a normal courtroom.
“It would remove the shroud of secrecy, so that people can see what really goes on,” said Circuit Court Judge Edward Angeletti.
Compared to most criminal trials, Ito “had no control of the courtroom,” Angeletti said. Cameras probably aggravated the situation, he added.
Angeletti said he “would not permit cameras across the board,” but make decisions case-by-case. Cameras should be banned if they seem likely to interfere with swift and efficient justice at any point in the trial.
He cited the sensational case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother convicted of murdering her two young sons. Smith’s judge allowed only partial television coverage in order to avoid a circus-like atmosphere.
But Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, the administrative judge of Circuit Courts in Baltimore, wants to keep television cameras out of the courtroom, period.
“The media” — like many other institutions in society — “are economically driven,” Kaplan said. Since coverage can’t go “gavel to gavel,” they take and use only “snippets” of courtroom action that give “the wrong impression” of proceedings, Kaplan said.
Though the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association has not adopted an official position on the cameras issue, Gary Strausberg, the group’s president, has one of his own.
“I think judges should have some discretion….But to have a prohibition is not a good thing,” he said.
Except for a brief 18-month experiment in 1980, Maryland has restricted television coverage to civil matters. Strausberg has handled several: the state’s first right-to-die case, for instance, as well as its first “wrongful birth” case, in which a sterilized woman got pregnant.
Initial concerns that participants would play to the cameras or find them distracting never really materialized, Strausberg said.
“Maybe the first five minutes, you’re aware of the cameras,” Strausberg said. But afterwards, he said, you totally forget about them and do what you have to do.
The past president of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association also believes that cameras have a place in the courtroom, subject to judicial discretion. Daniel M. Clements argues that if judges and lawyers know people are watching, they are more likely to “behave themselves.”
“Unfortunately, bad cases make bad law,” Clements said of the impact Simpson could have on the camera issue in Maryland.
Various broadcast media testify in support of cameras in the courtroom whenever the General Assembly takes up the issue.
The public has a right to know what goes on in criminal trials, said Chip Weinman of the Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Broadcasters Association. Televised coverage could actually help in the aftermath of Simpson, he said.
“We want to provide a service to the public that could counteract the erosion of public trust in the legal system,” Weinman said.
The Maryland Bar Association has no official stand on the issue, other than to say that any changes to the status quo should be channeled through the Court of Appeals, spokeswoman Janet Eveleth said.
And that may be the only way cameras will find their way into criminal trials, given the likelihood that the Legislature will revoke the ban next session. The chances of that happening, according to Vallario, “are slim and none, but not necessarily in that order.” -30-