TV Justice - Cameras in the Courtroom


By Ashley Thompson

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of his accused killer, George Zimmerman, captured the nation's attention. Viewers were able to witness every moment of the trial first hand.
In Florida, where the trial took place, cameras are allowed in courtrooms. Some believe they allow for transparency while others say they're just a distraction.

"I think about him daily and every time I feel sad, I get weak about the situation, I just remember him smiling and that helps me a lot."

Felesia Butler Lovejoy says she'll never forget the day Montgomery police showed up at her front door.

"My husband was whispering like was he okay? And that's when I saw the detective, he was shaking his head saying like no."

Her son, 24-year-old Antavious Butler had been the victim of senseless gun violence. Gunned down on Groveland Drive in Montgomery, Butler was the city's 34th homicide.

Police have charged Jacoby Foster of Montgomery with Butler's murder. With the trial not yet underway, family members say they'd like television coverage of the case. But because of an Alabama rule, that's not likely to happen.

In Montgomery County, that policy states that three parties must all agree before a camera is admitted inside a courtroom; the prosecution, the defense and the judge.

Judge Charles Price is the presiding judge for the 15th judicial circuit in Montgomery County. He says he was once an advocate for allowing cameras inside of courtrooms, but has since changed his stance.

"It all depends on the judge," he says. "Who the judge is, how much control he or she has over the case, the courtroom."

Price says he believes cameras often make people behave differently and as a result, order in the court is sometimes lost.

"Everyone appears to be auditioning for the next TV program and maybe too much theatrics and basically playing to the cameras."

Attorney James Anderson of Jackson, Anderson and Patty says he can agree with the judge on that point.

"There's going to be some who are going to do that," he says. "We've got our group that plays up to the cameras outside the courtroom, I think the same ones will do it inside."

Still, theatrics or not, Anderson says he supports allowing cameras in court.

"The public has a right to know what's going on and you wouldn't be there covering a story unless it was something that was an interest to the public."

Like the OJ Simpson trial in California or the more recent trials of George Zimmerman in Florida and Jodi Arias in Arizona, all broadcast.
So, why NOT here? It's a question Sharon Tinsley with the Alabama Broadcasters Association has asked many times.

"If you think about it, we have cameras in those school board meetings and city council meetings and in Congress and in the legislature, why not in courtrooms?"

Which are all funded by taxpayers. Tinsley believes cameras do help ensure that the innocent get a fair hearing.

Though Judge Price says that's not always the case with personalities on cable networks and those on social media forming their own opinions.

"There's too much second guesses, too many pundits making predictions about trials," says Price. "There's too many mini trials going on on the side."

But facts are facts Tinsley says and she draws a line between television stations in Alabama and the major media networks.

"I believe that local television stations are very balanced in their coverage of the news," she explains. "It disturbs me when people confuse what you do, what your television station does with what cable outlets do."

Is it possible that media outlets would affect the outcome of a trial?

Both Anderson and Tinsley say no. Though Judge Price says otherwise.

"I think the Zimmerman case is just classic," he says. "Because the first juror comes out, I don't want to prejudge her or criticize her but there's no question that her mind was made up long before the evidence was in."

Still, in 2013 when many state court systems have an open door policy for cameras, Alabama is not following suit. And supporters, like Lovejoy, say cameras in courtrooms can only benefit the public.

"By someone seeing it, like all the murders going on in Alabama, in Montgomery right now. I mean if someone can just see how painful it is to a family and what it does when a tragedy like this happens, maybe it could help. Maybe it would help."

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