ANNAPOLIS – Popular court drama shows may have some new competition in Maryland: Broadcast coverage of some criminal trials.
But before shows like “Law and Order” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have to worry about their ratings, the House Judiciary Committee will have to decide whether a bill giving broadcast cameras access to the courtroom should become law.
The bill, proposed by Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, R – Eastern Shore, would grant a presiding judge the authority to allow the news media to broadcast, videotape or record criminal proceedings.
Under the bill, grand jury, juvenile, and sex crime proceedings, as well as any trial closed to the public by law or judicial order, would remain off limits.
According to testimony, 37 states allow cameras in criminal trials. Federal criminal courts do not.
During the committee hearing Thursday, legislators questioned both the media’s right and motives in wishing to broadcast criminal trials, with one, Delegate Luiz R. Simmons, D – Montgomery, raising concerns about the “Oprah-fication” of criminal court trials.
Maryland judges are opposed to the bill, as are some prosecutors.
Nathan Braverman, associate judge for the District Court in Baltimore City, emphasized that the bill would jeopardize the rights of the accused to a fair trial, encourage witness intimidation and further punish victims and their families with involuntary publicity.
Several delegates echoed these concerns.
Delegate W. Daniel Mayer, R – Charles County, said that because the bill requires judges to entertain coverage requests from media up to 24 hours before the proceedings, it is “putting too much burden on a judge.”
But not all judges agreed.
Cecil County Administrative Judge Dexter Thompson supported the bill, testifying that with “very few observers keeping an eye” on the court system, justice can not be ensured.
Thompson repeatedly said that the public knows very little about court proceedings and relies on fictional court drama, television shows and exaggerated reality television for information.
For Thompson, media coverage could help reverse this misrepresentation.
Delegate Susan K. McComas, R – Harford County, added “I see [media coverage] as a wonderful learning tool for the profession.”
Braverman said public ignorance is “a fault of the education system.”
Michelle Butt, the news director for WBAL-TV in Baltimore, said broadcast journalists are “not asking for moon” and the bill does not inevitably mean there will be super-saturation coverage, like the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
But Braverman said even the lack of complete coverage is problematic.
“There is a concern that excerpted media coverage of only the most sensational cases and the most sensational aspects of those cases may mislead rather than inform,” Braverman said. Identical bills were proposed in the House and Senate last year but did not pass.