Pilot project tests photo coverage in Minn. courts

Published 10:40 am Monday, March 12, 2012

ST. CLOUD — Several Minnesota courthouses have been opened to journalists’ cameras, part of a pilot program that could lead to expanded photo and video coverage of state trials.

Cameras captured a Stearns County hearing Friday that involved post-trial motions in a fraud case, marking only the fourth time cameras have been at live hearings in the state since July. Attorneys and the judge said the cameras didn’t affect the proceedings, but the lawyers worried that cameras could cause problems for witnesses testifying in other cases.

The pilot project operates on the presumption that cameras will be allowed for a small set of civil cases. However, civil cases are often settled before hearings or rescheduled to accommodate criminal cases, so there haven’t been many opportunities to experiment.

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Minnesota’s judicial rules permit TV cameras in district courts if the judge, prosecution and defense all agree to it, which has seldom happened since the rule was enacted in 1983.

The concept has raised concerns that such coverage could dissuade victims or witnesses from coming forward, or lead to attorneys playing to the camera. But so far there has been little evidence that those worries have materialized.

Cameras were allowed into hearings about last summer’s state government shutdown and into hearings about the recount in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman Senate race.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin, who presided over the shutdown hearings, said the cameras were “totally unobtrusive. I forgot that it was there.”

The pilot project allows for witnesses to not be filmed if they choose.

While Gearin acknowledges the possibility that cameras might dissuade witnesses from coming forward or might make them reluctant to testify, she believes cameras should be allowed in cases that address public-policy issues or that generate intense public interest.

“Cameras don’t hurt. We let reporters in, and they don’t hurt,” Gearin said. “I’ve become stronger (in supporting cameras).”

The judge and both attorneys in Friday’s Stearns County case said they didn’t believe the hearing was affecting by having cameras present.

“I forgot about it,” said defense attorney Michael Ford.

Jerry Von Korff, who represented the plaintiffs, said he shares the concern that cameras could dissuade witnesses from testifying. Von Korff also worried that some attorneys might treat cameras as an opportunity to “showboat,” citing the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Mark Anfinson a media attorney who helped craft the rules for the pilot project, said he hadn’t heard complaints from anyone involved in a hearing where cameras had been allowed.

The pilot project began “and nobody barked,” he said. “And that’s where we’ve got to get to. There are judges emerging that are saying, ‘This is not a big deal.”’