Defense, prosecutors debate cameras in courtroom for trial in George Floyd case

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The death of George Floyd has led to protests across the nation and demands for justice around the world.

Now, the judge overseeing the case against the former officers charged in connection to Floyd’s death is weighing how the trial will be viewed in March.

Judge Peter Cahill introduced the possibility of allowing cameras in the courtroom when the former officers and their attorneys, along with attorneys for the media coalition, appeared in court on July 21. Judge Cahill cited concerns the pandemic could affect the right to a public trial.

“It’s very surprising,” said Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. “Because Minnesota has a long tradition of being extremely adverse to cameras in trials, particularly the criminal trial.”

At the hearing, attorneys representing Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng and Derek Chauvin did not object.

“What is surprising to me is that the defendants were very eager to have cameras in the courtroom,” said Kirtley. “As a general rule that’s not typical. Usually, lawyers representing criminal defendants would prefer to keep cameras out of the courtroom.”

This week, on July 28, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s team filed an objection.

The correspondence said while they support a public trial, “at this time the State is concerned that live audio and visual coverage in the courtroom may create more problems than they will solve.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank wrote, “Live audio and visual coverage could alter the way lawyers present evidence. It could subject the participants in the trial to heightened media scrutiny, distracting from the trial. Live audio and visual coverage may also be intimidating to some witnesses or impair their ability and willingness to come forward, making a fair trial more difficult. Testifying in public is challenging enough; live audio and visual testimony could potentially deprive the State of the testimony of certain witnesses.”

He went on to say that maybe the issue should be revisited as the trial nears.

“One of the major concerns of having cameras in the courtroom by people who are opposed to such coverage is that people in the courtroom will act differently,” said Raleigh Levine, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

She added that high-profile criminal cases are among the most contentious when it comes to allowing cameras.

“In the states that allow cameras in the courtroom, we just haven’t seen evidence that trial proceedings are affected in a negative way,” said Levine. “To a large extent, these high-profile cases probably argue some of the best arguments for coverage because people are really interested.”

She explained that a public trial is a constitutional right.

“Especially now in light of the pandemic, the public cannot come into the courtroom physically,” she said. “Many people just cannot be there so seeing the proceedings broadcast in real-time gives them an outlet.”

Levine said requiring public access to a trial is intended to add a layer of accountability.

“It ensures the public has confidence in the judiciary, it allows the public to serve as a check on the judicial system,” she said. “If people are lying, somebody who is watching can respond and come forward with information. It deters people acting as vigilantes, going after accused defendants because they’re afraid the judicial system won’t act properly and they need to take the law into their own hands, so it ensures public confidence and integrity of the judicial system.”

Kirtley agrees.

“I think it can be helpful to explaining to people ultimately whatever the verdict might be, how it is the jury would arrive at that point,” she said.

She also has concerns about public access during the pandemic.

“If you don’t know what happened in the courtroom, you’re hard-pressed to judge whether that was a valid verdict or not,” said Kirtley. “I think it’s terrific the judge is entertaining that because of these restrictions in place because of COVID.”

She said supporting restrictions on cameras in the courtroom can be a strategic move.

“I really think it’s about controlling the narrative,” said Kirtley. “I say that because I think we need to recognize judges have a lot of authority to control what happens in the courtroom so if there’s disruption they can stop it. They can kick the cameras out and most judges wouldn’t hesitate to do that.”

In Minnesota, both parties have to agree to audio-visual recording with approval from the judge.

“Most Minnesota lawyers have very limited experience with cameras in the courtroom,” said Kirtley. “My guess would be there is a certain level of apprehension on their part of how this is going to play out. If they support it, they’re gambling that it will help strengthen their case not in the courtroom as such but in the court of the public opinion.”

Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, filed a response to the Attorney General’s legal team, saying in part, “I have tried a handful in Wisconsin and there is absolutely no issue. You do not even know the cameras are there.”

Judge Cahill has not yet made a decision.

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