LINCOLN, Neb. — They record mundane daily activities such as pumping gas and grocery shopping. But when it comes to documenting the delivery of justice in Nebraska courtrooms, cameras are mostly off-limits.
That's changing under leadership from the state Supreme Court, as residents next week will get a rare peek at a criminal trial inside a Nebraska courtroom. A murder trial in Beatrice where news cameras will be allowed could be a precursor to more recordings of courtroom proceedings in the state, ending Nebraska's status as one of the 15 most restrictive in the country.
States including Colorado and Iowa have allowed cameras in courtrooms for decades. Now Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican wants the state to "get into the 21st century."
"I think that a large percentage of the public just doesn't know much about the courts at all," Heavican said. The image many people have of the courts is inaccurate, he said, formed by watching television shows that "really don't have much relationship to what goes on in a courtroom."
"I think people form their impressions of what goes on from watching 'Judge Judy' or ... 'CSI' or ... 'Boston Legal.' None of those kinds of programs give a very accurate picture of what goes on," he said.
Many Nebraskans, he said, "don't understand that courts first and foremost stand for stability and stand for the fact there are rules and the rules have to be followed and that people can depend on that system to be fair, impartial and predictable."
Under a new pilot project, a handful of courtrooms in the state — a couple in Lancaster County District Court and two more in the 1st Judicial District, which includes 11 southeastern counties — are allowing news media to use both still and video cameras to record proceedings.
The trial next week of Richard Allen Griswold, accused of murdering 49-year-old Connie Eacret at her Beatrice home in November, is believed to be the first trial in state history outside of the state Supreme Court where news cameras will be present. Cameras were already allowed in the state's appellate courts and the state Supreme Court. But it's unusual for either to conduct trials.
The 2006 impeachment trial of University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert before the state Supreme Court was a rare exception. Residents across the state were able to watch on television the trial proceedings that led to the conviction of Hergert for breaking campaign-finance laws in 2004 and lying to cover it up. Photographers also were allowed to take "still" photos. He was removed from office.
If the pilot project goes well, cameras may start recording judicial proceedings in more courtrooms across the state. Heavican said it hadn't been decided whether courts will be required to allow cameras.
The new rules for the 1st Judicial District courtrooms that are part of the pilot project let judges make final decisions on the cameras. The rules also allow just one still camera and one television camera, which will necessitate pool coverage. And the journalists won't be able to train their camera lenses on anything they want: Taking photographs or video of jurors, for example, is off-limits.
The judge who will oversee the Beatrice murder trial said his experience allowing news media to get audio recordings from courtrooms had been positive and he expected the same outcome with cameras.
"They would hear the arguments, and the comments I heard were, 'Now we realize how every case is different,'" such as in the sentencing phase, said Judge Paul Korslund. "I thought it promoted better understanding."
But many judges are wary of allowing cameras. "It would be fair to say that right now most judges are skeptical about the project," Heavican said. "I think the biggest thing is they just don't want the extra variable in the courtroom, which probably relates to maybe some compromising of the proceedings."
No verdict has ever been reversed because cameras were present in courtrooms, said Barbara Cochran, president of the Washington-based Radio-Television News Directors Association. The group advocates more courtroom access for cameras.