INDIANAPOLIS — An 18-month experimental program allowing television cameras in courtrooms to record trials is nearing its end. The verdict: It's a hung jury.
There are few test cases to determine whether televised coverage of trials produces legitimate news, helps to educate the public about the judicial system and treats defendants fairly.
"In lawyer terms, I guess you could say 'insufficient evidence,'" said Kevin Finch, news director of Indianapolis television station WISH. He noted there had been television coverage of only one trial in the state since the program began in July 2006, although a few other proceedings, such as sentencings, have been covered. The project ends Dec. 31.
Finch was among panelists who debated the merits of cameras in the courtroom Nov. 8 at a conference on access to public information. The forum, sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, the Indiana State Bar Association and the Hoosier State Press Association, attracted lawyers, journalists and other members of the public.
Indiana law prohibits cameras in courtrooms. But under the pilot program, journalists can bring recording equipment into a courtroom with consent from all parties involved in a case. Defendants and their lawyers typically have not consented.
Marion County criminal court Judge Robert R. Altice Jr. said the solution might be to "take all parties out of the mix and let the judge decide."
The broadcast news industry in Indiana tried that. The Indiana Broadcasters Association in January asked the Indiana Supreme Court to loosen the rules to give trial-court judges sole discretion on whether to permit cameras in their courtrooms, but the justices refused.
Defense lawyers object because they do not want their clients shown on television "on perhaps the worst day of their life," said David E. Cook, chief public defender of Marion County. "I find no common ground when it comes to the best interests of my client."
He said his responsibility was only to his client — not to the community, journalists or even the judge.
"The defense bar answers to no one except what is in the best interests of the client," he said. "You're never going to get us to agree."
Finch noted that a documentary film crew was permitted to record courtroom proceedings involving a juvenile case in 1999. He said Indiana was one of only a few states in the nation that does not allow cameras in the courtroom.
"It is not an impossibility that this kind of thing can work," Finch said. "Because it has worked. Somehow the rest of the country manages to get this done just fine."
Finch was asked whether the presence of television cameras in courtrooms could lead to sensational coverage of trials. Although that is the case in some cities across the county, he said, Indianapolis is not among them.
"This is not a television market where that sort of thing plays well," he said. "That's not what we are putting out in this town."