Blake case revives issue of cameras in courtroom

? Will Robert Blake take a place among the cast of well-known characters Sara Jane Olson, Mike Tyson and, of course, O.J. Simpson who have starred as themselves in real-life courtroom dramas?

While the controversy about cameras in courts largely has subsided since the tumult of the Simpson murder trial, the Blake case is rekindling debate about whether televised court proceedings are instructive or merely serve as trivial amusement that can have a negative effect on justice.

More than five years ago, on the heels of Simpson’s trial, a state Judicial Council task force rewrote the rules on media and the courts to make clear that trial judges have almost complete discretion over whether all, part or none of a trial is televised.

“If we can’t trust the discretion of our justices, the whole court system’s in trouble,” said state Appeals Court Judge Richard Huffman, who headed the task force.

Despite the Simpson trial backlash, which led to some judges and attorneys calling for a complete ban on courtroom cameras, a study in 2000 showed that four of every five TV requests were approved by judges throughout the state in 1998 and 1999. Rarely were denials appealed.

The new rules clearly prohibit photographing jury selection, jurors and spectators in the courtroom. And they require formal written requests for media coverage in each trial.

Some TV crews have argued that the new rule’s requirement that requests be made five days in advance of a broadcast is burdensome, said Judicial Council spokeswoman Lynn Holton.

But the stipulation is not always enforced. For example, the media cannot always know five days in advance that an arraignment is set.

Huffman said that despite the misgivings of some participants in the justice system, courts have a responsibility to make their workings public in most cases.

When he was a trial judge, Huffman said, he found ways to open his courtroom to TV while also protecting witnesses.

In one case, he recalls ordering bailiffs to sneak a murder witness into the courthouse through a hidden rooftop entrance to avoid being filmed while allowing coverage of the trial.

In cases with Hollywood angles, the show-biz factor has been unpredictable, with some trials aired and others not.

“If people come out of the woodwork (to testify) in a high-profile case, they’re going to be there if it’s on TV or not,” said First Amendment attorney Kellie Sager, who is representing media outlets in a bid to televise Blake’s court proceedings. “There are those of us who see the courts belong to the people and the people who should be able to see what’s going on.”

One South Carolina judge, William Howard, changed his mind about cameras after becoming more involved with the media in 1996.

Howard blocked camera crews from the trial of Susan Smith, the mother accused of killing her two children by driving them into a lake. The reason, he recalls, was because he was upset with how the Simpson case coverage was being handled.

Now, however, he speaks in favor of broadcasting trials. “O.J. was a great education for courts and the media,” Howard said.

Federal courts, which allow no TV cameras, are the next frontier.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., reintroduced the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which would allow cameras in federal courtrooms. They revived the act following the delayed audio airing of arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court election case that decided the last presidential election.

The legislation made it out of committee in November, and is awaiting a vote of the full Senate.

Familiar lines are being drawn in the case of Blake, the 1970s television star accused of murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

Blake’s attorney, Harland Braun, has asked the judge to bar television coverage, saying it would influence the testimony of witnesses.

“The difference is this is a Hollywood case, and to some witnesses, the Hollywood rules apply,” Braun said. “Truth, reality and fantasy are interchangeable. It doesn’t matter who you are. It matters who people think you are.

“So, you’ll have witnesses who are stuntmen, cameramen, minor actors exaggerate things to give themselves a bigger role.”

The district attorney’s office counters that cameras should be permitted in the courtroom.

“The (district attorney) has a policy of not opposing cameras,” prosecutor Gregory Dohi said before Blake’s arraignment April 22.

Court Commissioner Michael Duffey allowed cameras during the arraignment, saying Braun had invited the media in by giving interviews on morning news shows.

The Blake case is before Superior Court Judge Lloyd Nash. Thus far, Nash has banned cameras from his Van Nuys courtroom during the Blake proceedings.