There are benefits to America's penchant for recording everything these days. We draw real insight from unscripted moments with politicians who don't realize an audience member is recording everything on a phone. We get security footage that solves crimes. We get entertainment from a seemingly endless online stream of wacky high jinks involving cute animals, obese people, stupid daredevils, clueless celebrities, wardrobe malfunctions and kids who say the darndest things.
But we don't need cameras in courtrooms.
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This week's ruling that cameras will be allowed in DuPage County courtrooms as part of a pilot program expected to spread across the state is being hailed as a sign that our antiquated legal system is entering the 21st Century. Cameras will educate citizens about our legal process, keep judges and other government officials on their best behavior and help hold them accountable, say proponents, who include Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride and the Daily Herald editorial board.
I don't buy that argument. Neither does Nancy S. Marder, who once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and currently is a professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. In her throughly researched article called "The Conundrum of Cameras in the Courtroom," Marder says there is no evidence to suggest TV cameras during trials lead to a greater public understanding of our justice system, that there are better ways to keep citizens informed and provide accountability, and that TV cameras, instead of merely recording the proceedings, might alter them.
"I think it does change people's behavior," Marder says of a TV camera. "There's always the question of unintended consequences. It's not all beneficial. I think there are trade-offs … Once you add images, people focus on the wrong thing and what gets lost is the substance."
In the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and former Buffalo Grove resident Ronald Goldman, TV cameras didn't tell the complete story. But they did feed the circus atmosphere that resulted in Judge Ito Dancers on late-night TV and a citizenry more informed about a prosecutor's fashion sense and a main witness' flowing mane than about details of the nearly nine months of evidence and testimony.
"It really diminished the court system," Marder says of the cameras in that case.
Would a TV news show (or even a newspaper's online edition) use a clip of important testimony, or that one moment when the camera caught the defendant rolling his eyes and yawning?
"If the snippet contains only one side's position, then the viewer will have a lopsided view of the trial, which may, in turn, lead the viewer to conclude that the trial has not been conducted fairly," notes Marder, who says that happened in Nancy Grace's cable TV show's coverage of the 2011 acquittal of murder suspect Casey Anthony.
If there had been a camera in the courtroom at the recent Drew Peterson murder trial, would those proceedings have been more educational, more dignified and more focused on justice, or would it merely have increased the entertainment value? Would Peterson, his colorful defense attorneys, prosecutors, the judge and witnesses have acted the same? What would have happened to that footage after it entered the public domain?
In the days of three TV networks, "you could makes rules they had to abide by," Marden says. "Now, it's a free-for-all."
It's not difficult to imagine a clip of a state's attorney momentarily looking confused and stumbling over his or her words ending up in an online campaign ad supporting his opponent. Conversely, a state's attorney running for re-election might make his closing argument for the people sound a lot more like a self-serving ad for his re-election campaign. A judge might be tempted to use the courtroom as an audition to become the next Judge Judy. A witness might view her televised testimony as a great opportunity to get some free TV ad time for the handmade earrings she sells on her website. While rules generally prohibit cameras from showing jurors, mistakes happen.
"I think it adds to the challenges and can affect the actual trial," Marder says. She says she supports the ideas of transparency, accountability and education, "I just don't think that television is the way to do that."
People who grew up with nearly everything they do being recorded on some friend's phone might be accustomed to the camera and wouldn't change their behaviors knowing they would be on TV. Or maybe they'd be more savvy about how to use clips for their personal gain.
"It reduces the complexities of the trial and all the protections in place and instead we get sound bites," Marder says of the courtroom camera. She'd rather the court post trial transcripts online.
"Really," Marder concludes, "it's better if people would read about the case."