TV's access to Peterson trial at issue

07/21/2003 8:00 AM

11/19/2007 1:38 PM

The next battle pitting Scott Peterson's right to a fair trial against the public's right to information is likely to be waged in front of television cameras.

The outcome could determine whether the compelling double-murder case continues to fuel talk shows and news reports across North America.

"TV is a very powerful medium, very dangerous," said Harland Braun, a Los Angeles attorney who is no stranger to high-pressure, high-profile courtroom drama. He worked on the civil rights trial of motorist Rodney King and is representing actor Robert Blake, who is being tried for his wife's murder.

The point is not lost on Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami, who earlier this month set deadlines for attorneys on all sides to present him with written arguments.

At issue is whether the judge should allow cameras in his courtroom when prosecutors lay out well-guarded evidence against Peterson, and when his attorneys defend him.

Peterson, 30, could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering his 27-year-old wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.

His preliminary hearing is scheduled to start Sept. 9; that's when Girolami will gauge whether there is enough evidence to go to trial.

Peterson's lead attorney, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, has said he might ask for a rare closed preliminary hearing, which would exclude everyone but participants.

Prosecutors aren't happy with that idea. District Attorney James Brazelton has said he wants an open hearing to air the now-mysterious evidence, hopefully putting an end to wild speculation.

If Geragos does not ask to go behind closed doors, the question of the cameras will remain at the fore. It is scheduled for debate before the judge on Aug. 14.

Prosecutors and the family of Laci Peterson already have lined up against cameras, while media advocates favor their presence in the courtroom. Peterson's defense camp has yet to weigh in.

The arguments against the cameras are:

Potential for ridicule. "If there are 30 seconds of ridiculousness in a six-hour trial, you get that 30 seconds" on TV news, said Braun.

Braun helped craft a legislative argument for a bill introduced by Sen. Ross Johnson, R- Irvine, that would abolish TV coverage of the courtroom until after a verdict is reached. The bill won't be deliberated until next year.

"Anything that goes wrong and looks dumb goes on TV," Braun said. "So TV inherently distorts the public's perception of the courtroom."

Showboating. Cameras can affect witnesses, attorneys, judges and even jurors, agree some observers on both sides of the issue.

"They do bring out the ham in some people," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler.

Said Braun: "A trial depends on participants acting normally to get at the truth. If you're pandering to another audience, it distorts your conduct. In O.J. Simpson, some witnesses tried to elaborate their testimony to become public figures."

Fear of retribution. Brazelton wrote in a court document that many witnesses did not ask to be sucked into one of the most-watched legal dramas in the nation. "To thrust nervous and unwilling victims, witnesses and others into the glaring media spotlight" would intimidate them, Brazelton wrote.

Also, some undercover officers would be "in grave danger" if shown on television, he wrote.

"Some jurors," Braun added, "are worried about how they'll be thought of in the community when they go back, being second-guessed by members of their community."

Security. Brazelton's office has received "hostile, if not threatening, letters, as a result of the national media coverage," he wrote in a court document. "Some of these writers appear to be mentally unstable. Allowing cameras in the courtroom will turn witnesses into 'celebrities' and potential targets at the same time."

Serious business vs. entertainment. "A real trial, as opposed to a fictional one, is not entertainment for the masses," Brazelton wrote. People with a passing interest don't deserve a seat in the courtroom, he wrote, "or a recliner seat in his or her living room."

Some lawyers in high-profile cases, however, say showbiz is the last thing on their minds during a serious case.

"Quite frankly, I forgot about (the cameras)," said Jeff Dusek, lead prosecutor last year in the case against the San Diego man who killed 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.

Privacy. "We can only hope that we will not be forced to relive the ugliness of the trial and forced to endure the relentless hour-after-hour, day-after-day, play-by-play broadcasts on television," said Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski.

In a plea to Girolami, they wrote that they expect evidence to be "excruciatingly painful" and do not expect to be able to avoid news coverage on television.

Unlike Simpson -- a longtime celebrity -- those in the Peterson case have a right to shield insatiable curiosity, Brazelton wrote in a court document.

The right to a fair trial. Banning cameras would decrease media coverage, Brazelton wrote.

"Less exploitative and dramatic coverage of this case will significantly improve the chances of allowing a fair and unbiased jury to be selected here," Brazelton wrote, insisting that "the trial belongs in Stanislaus County."

Moving proceedings elsewhere would result in extra costs, which wouldn't be paid by the media, he noted.

The arguments for allowing the cameras are:

The people's right to know. "Courtrooms belong to the public," said Judge Fidler, who was an associate producer for television documentaries before going into law. He has advocated open courtrooms in presentations before judges and lawyers, but concedes, "I know I'm in the minority."

Courts must remain open, federal case law has long demanded, unless it can be shown that the defendant's case would be hopelessly spoiled.

For example, an appeals court in the shoplifting case of actress Winona Ryder -- also represented by Geragos -- ruled that the presumption of openness is essential to "the very nature of a criminal trial under our system of justice."

A lower court judge had approved closed hearings and sealed some court documents, both in error, according to the ruling.

Gavel-to-gavel, real-time coverage offered by Court TV "is the only way to give people an unadulterated, unbiased view of what happened," said Kelli Sager. She is a Los Angeles media attorney credited with persuading Judge Lance Ito to allow cameras during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, and is attempting the same with the Peterson case.

Cameras can be turned off. A range of options is available for people who don't want to be identified, media proponents say.

In the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Florida, for example, the victim was never shown as she testified. In many other trials, judges simply order cameras turned off during testimony of reluctant witnesses, Sager noted.

And, most California courts bar cameras from showing jurors, negating the argument that they could be reluctant to serve, media proponents say.

"You can manage it," Fidler said.

Said Sager: "It's not an all-or-nothing proposition."

Cameras can be unobtrusive. Fidler decided to mount small cameras on the wall of his courtroom during proceedings for Sarah Jane Olson, a fugitive for 25 years after planting bombs under police cars. The same

"robo-cam" idea is being discussed for the Peterson case.

"Cameras are not this big, huge monstrosity thing with lights and wires going everywhere that you saw 20 years ago," Sager said.

Less dependence on TV pundits. "When cameras don't have access (to courtrooms), they turn to commentators who express views, often without the necessary background or knowledge," Fidler said.

"I don't want commentators telling anyone what's going on. I want them to see it. I would rather people watch and form their own opinions."

Fidler said he cringes when commentators speculate on his state of mind when making decisions. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he said. "They're not even in the ballpark."

A decrease in sensationalism. Hoping to keep a tight lid on the case -- and protect Peterson's right to a fair trial -- Girolami has sealed hundreds of pages of documents normally considered open to the public.

They include search warrants and affidavits, autopsy reports and wiretap recordings. Also, the judge imposed a strict gag order on participants.

That suggests a judge committed to preserving evidence for formal proceedings, Sager said. If he wants the focus off speculation and on the real thing, she said, there is no better way than to televise court action while keeping everything else under wraps.

"It's the least prejudicial way," Sager said.

It is not surprising that judges frustrated at sensational reports lash back in one area they control absolutely -- by booting cameras, Sager and Fidler said.

"You're doing your job (as a judge) and all of a sudden you find yourself being lampooned on 'The Tonight Show,'" Fidler said. "I don't think any judge wants to be seen as a dancing anybody."

Said Sager: "The mere fact that a case is getting a lot of attention is not a reason to not have cameras in the courtroom."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service