It won't exactly be Law & Order, but Illinois' courtroom dramas could soon be coming to a living room near you.
In an announcement titled "Extended Media Coverage In the Circuit Courts of Illinois on an Experimental Basis," the Illinois Supreme Court yesterday ordered that video and still cameras are to be permitted inside the state's courtrooms through a limited pilot program, effective immediately. The announcement makes Illinois the 37th state to adopt such a policy.
Reactions to the new protocol are mixed. Journalists and first-amendment advocates hail the move, while some lawyers worry the edict will dissuade witnesses from coming forward. Others also worry about the circus-like atmosphere that accompany camera crews during high-profile murder trials.
The State Journal-Register in Springfield, for example, quotes criminal defense lawyer Dan Fultz, who complains that camera footage is often deceptive. "It's not fair to my client," Fultz told the J-R. "When you're taking direct videotape of the defendant, you catch him in a moment when he's exasperated and that becomes the story, the jurors watch it, maybe they didn't pick up on it in court and they see it over and over again, they tape it to show their friends. It just leads to all kinds of additional problems."
Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court, along with federal district courts, ban cameras.
But most lawyers and criminal justice scholars say the policy is more in line with natioanl norms and will ultimately demystify court proceedings that too often get kept in the dark. Writes the Chicago Sun-Times in an editorial: "In recent years, many of us have been dismayed by the number of men convicted in Illinois courtrooms who later were found to be innocent. But most people don't have the time to travel to a courthouse every day to follow a particular case. Televised trials would give them a chance to see how things really work in the courtroom and to judge for themselves whether or which reforms are needed."
The new policy will be introduced on a circuit-by-circuit basis. In order for it to be implemented, the chief judge of his or her circuit must make an application with the clerk of the Supreme Court.
Victims of sex crimes and are exempt from coverage unless they consent. Juvenile and adoption cases, as well as jury selections, are also exempt. Objections by other victims of felonies, police informants, undercover agents and relocated witnesses will be presumed valid.
The new policy defines extended media coverage as "any media recording or broadcasting of proceedings by the use of television, radio, photographic, or recording equipment for the purpose of gathering or disseminating news to the public."
The announcement also serves a cautionary note to bloggers and citizen journalists by defining "News Media" as "established news gathering and reporting agencies and their representatives whose function is to inform the public" (emphasis added). It will be interesting to see how judges draw the line between established and non-established journalists.