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Put cameras in Cook County courtrooms

Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial

For two years, the Illinois Supreme Court has been overseeing a “pilot” program to gauge the impact of allowing cameras in courtrooms. It’s time to declare the program a success and bring it to Cook County.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans applied back on Jan. 24, 2012, for the right to allow video and audio recordings. As the Sun-Times’ Tim Novak and Chris Fusco reported Monday, that request is still on hold. It shouldn’t be. The wheels of justice are known to grind slowly, but in this case they don’t seem to be grinding at all.

In January 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to allow video and audio records in courtrooms “on an experimental, circuit-by-circuit basis.” Since then, cameras have been allowed in judicial circuits that cover 40 of the state’s 102 counties. But not in Cook, which is the biggest county and the only one whose request has gone unanswered. A court spokesman said there is “no specific timetable” for remedying that. (An exception last year was made so MSNBC could videotape prostitutes in a special court for “Sex Slaves: Windy City.”)

At one time, people feared courtroom cameras would encourage grandstanding and make witnesses reluctant to testify. But in general, that isn’t what happened. Instead, being able to watch courtroom proceedings has educated the public about the criminal justice process and has led to more decorum and a better quality of justice. In fact, lawyers say some outlandish antics have been deterred by the knowledge that a camera would record them.

Years ago, cameras were permitted in court, and they were a distraction. Photographers of that era lugged around big Speed Graphics, and every time they took a picture, a flashbulb went off. Today’s video and audio recording devices are unobtrusive, and people participating in a trial often forget the cameras are there.

Some lawyers, primarily on the defense side, are worried that witnesses — who already often try to avoid appearing in court — will have another reason to try to beg off if they know there are cameras waiting for them. But when it’s appropriate, witnesses can petition a judge to keep their images from being recorded.

Judges also have the right to ban cameras altogether for any trial in which they see fit. Other controls are in place to prevent the misuse of materials and invading the jurors’ privacy. Judges also can hold so-called “in camera” proceedings in their chambers, where the news media is not allowed.

Around the nation and the world, the trend is toward allowing electronic recordings. Last October, Britain began permitting broadcasters to film legal arguments and judgments. In South Africa, the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, now underway, is the first criminal trial there at which live cameras have been allowed. In Iowa, cameras have been allowed for 35 years, and last week, the Iowa Supreme Court extended that privilege to include smartphones, laptop computers and electronic tablets.

Citizens are ultimately responsible for what happens in all three branches of government. They can base their judgments on voluminous information from the executive and legislative branches, but not the courts. That doesn’t make sense.

The NATO 3 case is one recent Cook County example that should have been filmed so citizens could see what reporters in attendance saw — that this was a flimsy case that never should have gone to trial with such serious charges.

The video and audio recording of trials, when appropriate, opens up the process. It makes the people involved in courtroom procedures more accountable. It should begin in Cook County without further delay.

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