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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sketching their flock.

On Friday, the Sean Bell trial ended when the judge announced his verdict acquitting all three police officers of all charges. You won’t see any photographs or videos of that dramatic moment, though, because there is still no First Amendment right to photograph or televise court proceedings – despite the impassioned arguments of journalists over the years.

Indeed, very little has changed on this front since 1965, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Estes v. Texas that defendant (and friend of Lyndon) Billy Sol Estes had been denied a fair trial owing to the disruption caused by live television coverage of the trial. While the Court recognized that advances in technology might make television coverage less disruptive in the future, its held that its judgment in this case had to “take the facts as they are presented today.” The Court revisited the issue in 1981 in Chandler v. Florida, when it held that Florida could allow electronic coverage of criminal trials even if the defendant objected. Following Chandler, most states allowed cameras in at least some of their courts.

So while the federal judiciary continues to prohibit all electronic coverage, there is a patchwork of regulations covering the state courts. In New York, it is allowed in appellate courts subject to the individual court’s approval. At the trial level it was allowed, subject to certain restrictions, from 1987 to 1997, when the legislature permitted a ban on Section 52 of the Civil Rights Law to expire. Several trial judges ruled that Section 52 was unconstitutional and permitted electronic coverage in their courtrooms. But in 2005, the New York State Court of Appeals ended the debate when it affirmed a lower court’s ruling against Court TV’s challenge to the law.

Cameras in the court continues to be a hot topic among defense lawyers. No matter which side you come down on, however, there is no doubt that the courtroom sketch artists are a part of the rich tapestry of this city’s dramatic trial culture which would be lost if the electronic journalists were to prevail. Surely the most colorful of these artists is the mother-daughter team of Andrea and Shirley Shepard, who work together and sign their sketches “Shepard.” Today’s New York Times City Room blog carried a wonderful interview and video of the pair discussing their coverage of the Sean Bell trial, and how they worked furiously to capture Detective Michael Oliver at the moment of his acquittal.

You know you’ve made the big time when the Shepards show up at your client’s arraignment or trial. Check out their work here. Now who’s that distinguished looking white-haired guy standing on the right? CR

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