DENVER The judge in the Kobe Bryant rape case sharply limited how the media will cover the upcoming trial through TV and still cameras yesterday, saying he was worried too much exposure threatens the possibility of a fair hearing.
District Judge Terry Ruckriegle said no cameras at all will be allowed during witness testimony or jury selection. Still photography will be allowed during opening and closing statements; video and audio coverage will be allowed only during closing arguments.
Attorneys for news organizations including the Associated Press had asked to be allowed to photograph and videotape the entire trial. Attorneys for the alleged victim joined prosecutors and defense attorneys in opposing the request.
Bryant, 26, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with an employee of the Vail-area resort where he stayed last summer. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000. Jury selection begins Aug. 27.
Ruckriegle’s ruling struck a fair balance between the need to ensure a fair trial and the First Amendment rights of the media, said Bob Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law.
“I think that from the O.J. (Simpson) media debacle, judges have become very averse to allowing real-time television coverage of proceedings including the trial in their courtrooms,” Pugsley said. “I think this is a healthy reaction on their part in the interests of securing the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and the empanelment of an impartial jury.”
Ruckriegle prohibited any photography of members of the jury and any audio coverage or close-up photography of conferences at the bench or of communications between attorneys and their client or among attorneys.
Steven Zansberg, one of the attorneys for the news organizations, said the decision reflects the judge’s concern with how the presence of cameras in the Internet age may affect witnesses in a sexual assault case. He said the ruling can’t be appealed.
The judge said he was concerned about the potential for witness intimidation and anxiety stemming from physical threats made against the alleged victim, prosecutors and others involved in the case.
“The increased anxiety and apprehension of witnesses that flow from the public display of an image or live testimony reduces the court’s ability to maintain a fair trial in this matter and exacerbates what is admittedly a problematic situation in a public courtroom,” he said. “Accordingly, the court concludes there is a reasonable likelihood that (expanded media coverage) of the witness testimony would compromise the fair trial rights of the participants.”
Ruckriegle said attorneys in the case have shown “no propensity for showboating or grandstanding,” but concluded there was a likelihood that cameras would affect witnesses, some of whom displayed reluctance and discomfort during pretrial hearings.
“Substantial portions of the testimony may no doubt be embarrassing and humiliating for some of the participants and will likely exact some measure of intense psychological stress, if not a physical distress,” Ruckriegle said.