And yet another sensationalized trial has come and gone. It doesn’t really matter whose trial it was, but it’s reasonable to assume that there will be days of pundit commentary to top off the days/weeks/months of courtroom punditry that has already flushed on by. Doubtless, a significant faction of the public will be incensed. If not naturally, then fueled by the opinionated back-and-forth by fervent cable “news” commentators.
We need to make this go away.
Now, I’m not saying that we need to get rid of courtroom cameras. No—I think they provide a very important and as objective-as-possible view of a trial. What I want to see done away with is live coverage. There really isn’t any public service that is to be had by live broadcast of courtroom dramas other than appeasing the voyeuristic tendencies of an audience more interested in schadenfreude than justice.
I propose that all video be held until immediately after the sentencing period of a trial (or verdict, when sentencing isn’t applicable). After that point, the video is as much a part of the public record as any other transcript. Should the trial then be of sufficient interest to be broadcast, fine. Some would argue that knowing the verdict would lessen viewer interest. GOOD. This isn’t some entertainment sideshow. People deserve more dignity than that.
But…but…but… No. No “buts”. Let’s look at it this way: assume for a moment that YOU (yes, you…lurking there) are arrested for a crime that only you know you didn’t commit. You are put on trial. As it stands now, you could now be fodder for any spray-tanned twinkie with a desk and a microphone (desk optional). They paint you as the vilest of vile. A person so heinously evil you’d have to tunnel up to reach the lowest circle of Hell. Before long, a large segment of the trial-as-entertainment viewing public totally agrees. You are guilty. GUILTY. No question. And then…you get off (after all, you didn’t do it). You’re relieved. You’re nightmare is over.
Or is it?
I think we know the answer to this. To many, you are forever that devil who got off…and they will let you know it. Because you’ve been plastered on TV for weeks, there are few places you can go and not be recognized. Yeah, I bet you’re really happy about live cable coverage of your trial now.
Except in cases of national security, all trials need the transparency of process that courtroom cameras provide. As adversarial as the justice system is, it still hypothetically operates under the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The ratings-whores that feed from the court of public opinion have no such constraint. Sensational is what sells, and they have learned the tricks of how to make even a mundane trial into a self-anointed ”trial of the century”. As distasteful as that is, there is an even more insidious side-effect: it can affect judges and lawyers who start playing to the camera—even if they aren’t conscious of it.
It’s time to re-examine our great experiment in flashing open the trench coat of our justice system by doing some sensible things:
- We maintain cameras in the courts but stop live feeds to “news” organizations.
- At the completion of a trial, the uncut video (or videos, if multiple cameras were used) must be released to interested parties.
- At no point will the faces of jury members be recognizable (for their own protection).
- The privacy of minors and the images of victims will be respected as directed by the courts. All violations of this will be considered intentional and criminal.
- An appeal does not prevent/delay the release of the video, but a mistrial will (as the trial is not yet over) provided the delay isn’t onerous, unreasonable, or with the intent of postponing the video release.
This procedure helps protect the (presumably) innocent following an acquittal. After all, if they are painted with the “evil” brush by some wagging-tongue after the verdict is known, that is no long protected as commentator speculation but is instead slander/libel, and the wronged would then have a means of legal redress.
The system of live coverage we now partake in helps to erode the facade of civility our society is supposed to have. I like to think we’re better than that.