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Editorial Roundup: It’s time for broader access to Minnesota courts

Many aspects of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial were unprecedented or nearly so: The guilty verdict, for starters. The worldwide interest. The damning video evidence.

Also: The presence of cameras, livestreaming the proceeding not only to televisions around the world, but to desktops and the pockets of millions. Wherever there was an internet connection, the trial was live. And more than 22 million Americans watched at least part of it.

That level of access has never happened before in Minnesota, where the battle to open the public’s courts to modern technology has been going on behind the scenes for decades, with some — but not much — progress.

Minnesota prosecutors have long contended that allowing broad access for news cameras inside criminal courtrooms would taint the process. The common arguments are that lawyers might play to the cameras, witnesses might be intimidated by them, that the privacy of jurors would be at risk.

Those arguments are not without merit; the trial of O.J. Simpson was the very definition of “media circus.” However, the Simpson trial is now more than a quarter-century in the past. The relationship of people to video cameras has changed drastically since the days when literally no one had a video camera in their pocket all day, every day to now, when most people do.

Technology and times have changed, but Minnesota’s rules governing cameras in courtrooms barely did.

The trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder in the midst of a worldwide pandemic changed that. Measures to protect the health of witnesses, jurors, court staff and the public created an impasse between social distancing and the defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial, as well as and the public’s constitutional right to witness it. Put more simply: There wasn’t enough space in the courtroom to provide both social distancing and meaningful access to the public.

“This court concludes that the only way to vindicate the defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial and the media’s and public’s constitutional right of access to criminal trials is to allow audio and video coverage,” Judge Petere Cahill ruled.

Cahill’s decision upset decades of precedent by allowing three video cameras to be set up in his courtroom to livestream the proceedings.

The pool reporting arrangement was requested by media around Minnesota and the nation. It allowed a cooperative livestream of Chauvin’s trial to be broadcast on dozens of news platforms, providing unlimited opportunities for the public to see the evidence for themselves, with minimal disruption in the courtroom. (It also came with an arrangement for a rotation of reporters, including those from the St. Cloud Times and its parent organization, the USA Today Network, to sit in the courthouse and report for other news outlets, again minimizing disruption and crowding in the courtroom through cooperation.)

What happened next seemed to convince even some of the measure’s toughest opponents.

“Things went better than the way I thought they were going to,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. “I thought it would alter the way lawyers handled the case and handled evidence. But it went pretty well.”

The long-feared chaos did not happen. The dignity and decorum of the court was preserved. Jurors were not shown or identified until they chose to go public after the trial. Lawyers did not grandstand. Juvenile witnesses were not shown. Graphic video evidence was redacted from broadcast. More than 22 million people got to see for themselves.

Let’s not go backwards, Minnesota. Dozens of states have allowed video and photo coverage of their courtrooms for dozens of years now. As the public’s trust in its institutions is degraded, transparency is one way — perhaps the only way — to restore it.

— St. Cloud Times, May 14

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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