Window into courtroom turns 30

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 29, 2008
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by Joe Wilhelm Jr.

Staff Writer

Judges and attorneys admit cameras attract little attention now, but almost everyone involved in the practice of law was against bringing cameras into the courtroom 30 years ago.

Supporters of the First Amendment recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of courts allowing cameras to broadcast trials. Jacksonville was included in Florida’s pilot program to find out if cameras could coexist with court procedures.

“Everything that could possibly go wrong with having the media in the courtroom, did go wrong,” said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett. “(Estes v. Texas) set a stain on media and reporting of court cases.”

Billy Sol Estes had been indicted by a Texas county grand jury for swindling, but he argued his right to a fair trial had been violated by the media coverage of his trial. The case gained national attention, so the media coverage was more expanded than an average trial. His counsel tried to prevent the media’s access to the trial, but the request was denied. The court did postpone the trial to allow time for a booth to be constructed in the rear of the courtroom to house television cameras and equipment to reduce disruption in the courtroom.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his right to a fair trial had been violated by the publicity of the pretrial hearing and overturned his conviction.

The Florida Supreme Court looked to improve on the first attempt made to bring cameras into the court room and revised Canon 3A (7) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The Court decided to create a pilot program with strict guidelines to see if cameras could work in the courtroom.

“We decided to do it for one year under strict guidelines,” said Hatchett, who helped create the program as a justice on the Florida Supreme Court. “Camera positions were set and the jury couldn’t be shown on camera. Consent had to be given by both the prosecution and defense before the cameras were allowed.”

The first year didn’t produce many results because no one agreed to allow the cameras in the courtroom.

“So we decided not to require consent,” said Hatchett. “We told the courts that they would allow the cameras under the guidelines we set.”

After the limited success, the program’s jurisdiction grew from just the Second Judicial Circuit to include the Ninth, Fourth and Eighth Judicial Circuits by 1976.

One of the first televised criminal trials in Jacksonville was part of that experiment and it involved the case of “Smith v. State” with Assistant State Attorney Hank Coxe representing the state and attorneys Walter Arnold and Eddie Booth representing the defendant.

“I don’t know which I was more terrified of, the cameras or trying a case against Walter Arnold and Eddie Booth,” said Coxe, a former Florida Bar president. “They were my mentors.”

Arnold, 96, claimed that he found out the trial was being televised when he walked in the courtroom the morning of the trial.

“That was the most unfair thing to ever happen to me in a courtroom,” said Arnold. “The jurors were instructed by the judge not to watch the television during the trial, but that was like telling a baby not to eat candy.”

Arnold became frustrated with the conduct of the jury with the cameras in the courtroom.

“They paid more attention to getting their picture on television than they did to the testimony,” Arnold said. “I was always against having cameras in the courtroom.”

Reginald Evans Smith had been convicted of second degree murder and the court returned the same decision during the re-trail.

Former Mayor and General Counsel for the City of Jacksonville Ed Austin was the state attorney during the first televised criminal trial.

“The press always felt they had a right to be there, but the judges felt they had the right to maintain dignity and decorum in their courtrooms,” said Austin. “As an old-fashioned kind of lawyer, I leaned against it because I thought some attorneys – and even some judges – would play to the camera. But as a prosecutor, I thought it was a good idea to get your side out to the public.”

Circuit Court Judge Charles Mitchell has over 30 years experience as a judge and is also against allowing the cameras in the courtroom.

“I have not been a proponent of cameras in court. The few times we’ve used them it has not been a problem if the proper arrangements are met ahead of time,” said Mitchell. “I have found it’s just human nature that the trial lasts longer when it’s filmed, though. Attorneys spend longer time cross-examining the witness.”

Circuit Court Judge Bernard Nachman understands the reasoning behind cameras in the courtroom.

“I’ve always required a pool camera person. I am not sure they changed the way courts were run,” said Nachman. “I’ve been fortunate that the lawyers were so much more focused on the case that we were trying. They seem to pay more attention to decorum when the cameras are there.”

In most courts that do allow a camera into the court, only one is allowed to be filming. All other news agencies get a video feed from the single camera in the courtroom.

Former Jacksonville Bar Association President Joe Milton was another member of the law community that slowly decided to accept cameras in court.

“Initially I had reservations about them. I thought they would cause civil trial attorneys to try cases for cameras not for jury. I’m happy to report that idea was unfounded,” said Milton. “They are set up in an out of the way area, so they are out of the action. After the first 10 minutes, you forget about them. They really let the public see the administration of justice and I think it’s been a plus.”

Allowing cameras in the courtroom is a prevalent practice on the state court level. The Florida Supreme Court has four cameras mounted in its chambers and broadcasts its opinions daily. One Florida Supreme Court Justice found it interesting that the highest court in the land is one of the few places left that doesn’t allow cameras.

“I do not believe it’s going to unduly influence the nine justices on the (U.S.) Supreme Court. It’s a wonderful service to the people of the United States to have proceedings of our highest court televised,” said Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Anstead. “It will happen some day. We can have pictures drawn of people in the courtroom. Why can’t we have video images from the Supreme Court? There is no valid excuse for not having cameras.”

Hatchett agreed.

“It’s the people’s court. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to see what happens in the courtroom?” said Hatchett. “Think about Bush v. Gore during the 2000 election. Is there a more important case that camera coverage was so vital? Everyone around the world saw that case.

“It will be public opinion that opens up the Supreme Court.”

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