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posted: 1/30/2013 5:00 AM

Cameras and the rights of the accused

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  • Scott Slonim, public defender

    Scott Slonim, public defender

By Scott Slonim

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans recently announced a policy designed to spare witnesses, judges, jurors and potential jurors from being photographed in court on cellphones that could be used by courtroom spectators to stream the proceedings to others. We applaud Judge Evans' concern and his taking steps to preserve people's safety.

Earlier, the Illinois Supreme Court announced a policy designed to promote transparency by permitting cameras in trial courtrooms. We applaud the justices' concern with making trial proceedings more understandable to the public.

However, we too have a concern. We are concerned that focus is being lost on the single party who has the most at stake in a criminal trial.

It is the accused who has the most to lose. It is the accused who, for exactly that reason, is protected by provisions of the Constitutions of the United States, and of the state of Illinois.

The law presumes the accused to be innocent of the charges. The law guarantees the accused the right to a fair trial, as well as to a public trial.

As we near the time when cameras will be allowed in Cook County criminal courtrooms, we sound this cautionary note. The rights of the accused should not be dismissed as less important than electronic broadcasting.

Illinois' sorry history of wrongful convictions provides plenty of reason to be worried. Necessary steps toward transparency should be taken only while at the same time protecting the rights of the presumptively innocent. Just as Judge Evans is concerned about the rights of witnesses and court personnel, individual judges who make decisions about having cameras in the criminal courtrooms ought to be concerned about the rights of those who are charged with crimes. At the end of the day, after trials have been broadcast on live television, where do the accused go to get their reputation back?

This is not a freedom of the press issue. We understand all too well the role the press plays in preserving all of our freedoms. But allowing an "If it bleeds, it leads" attitude to infect the operation of a criminal courtroom would set the cause of fair trials back generations. There is a vast difference between having cameras in a courtroom and having reporters sitting in the gallery taking notes.

The Supreme Court's policy seems to recognize the relative dangerousness of cameras by providing some parties with the right to veto being photographed. These chosen few include those who claim to be victims of sexual abuse or forcible felonies, civilians who seek to help themselves by helping the police, police officers who pretend to be civilians as they seek to uncover criminal activity and witnesses who have been relocated because they have been perceived to be in danger.

Regrettably, however, there is no corresponding concern for the very person whose right to be free is endangered by the proceeding. Why isn't the accused who objects to being on television given the same veto as someone who claims to be a victim?

The accused is not less of a human being, but rather an innocent person being placed on trial for his or her life, for his or her future. A trial takes place to determine whether the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty as charged. That process should not be subject to one-sided treatment favoring those who make the accusation.

Certainly, some of our clients would embrace the extra publicity provided by television coverage. Some of our clients would not be put at a disadvantage by the danger of extraordinary behavior by those who know they are on camera.

But some of our clients may be put at a disadvantage. Objections to live camera coverage by an accused should have presumptive validity, just as the accused's assertion of innocence has presumptive validity.

After all, every member of our society has the same core value: the right to a fair trial is sacred, and must be preserved.

• Scott Slonim is division chief in the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, Third Municipal District.

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