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Why are cameras still out of order in Pa. courts?

In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could allow cameras in courts and could make the rules governing them, and now 35 states allow them — but not Pennsylvania.

Courtroom sketch artist Christine Cornell's depiction of Bill Cosbsy cursing Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele moments after the entertainer was convicted of sexual assault in April 2018.
Courtroom sketch artist Christine Cornell's depiction of Bill Cosbsy cursing Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele moments after the entertainer was convicted of sexual assault in April 2018.Read moreChristine Cornell

Moments after he was convicted of sexual assault in Montgomery County Court in April, Bill Cosby unleashed an expletive-laden outburst toward the county's top prosecutor, who had just told the judge that the entertainer's $1 million bail should be revoked because he owned a plane and was therefore a flight risk.

The courtroom sketch artist showed Cosby's mouth agape, his handlers trying to quiet him, his body leaning toward District Attorney Kevin Steele, and Judge Steven O'Neill's arm raised as if demanding order. Although everyone heard Cosby utter the expletive, most journalists reported that he'd spoken of himself in the third person: "He doesn't have a plane, you a——!"

But not everyone reported it that way, and the discrepancy couldn't be resolved definitively because cameras and recording devices are not permitted in Pennsylvania trial courtrooms, even though most states green-lighted the use of such technology in courts years ago.

The state's high court would have to approve a change. "This is a topic of great interest, which the court has discussed and considered," said Supreme Court Justice David N. Wecht, who as a judicial candidate in 2015 had campaigned in favor of televising court proceedings. "The majority of the court has not made any determination to change the rules regarding cameras in the courtroom at this time."

Thirty-five states allow cameras in trial courts. One state, Oklahoma, has made no rules regarding them, and Pennsylvania is among 14 states that ban them, according to the Radio, Television, Digital News Foundation's Cameras in the Courts State by State Guide. Most states, including Pennsylvania, allow some camera access in appellate courts where there are no juries or witnesses, and during ceremonies held in courtrooms.

In Philadelphia, the state's largest court system, judges appear open to letting cameras in — under certain guidelines.

"I think if it's done properly, you can have cameras," said Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Minehart, who presided over the 2013 baby-murder trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. "If you don't see the jury and you don't see certain witnesses. You can focus on witnesses who are not going to be in danger, and on the judge and the lawyers."

That trial, which concluded with Gosnell being convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, drew journalists from across the country, including one whom Minehart warned for using his iPhone to snap a picture of the courtroom.

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge James DeLeon said new instructions would have to accompany introduction of cameras.

"I think if cameras do come, then there have to be classes given for the judges and also for the attorneys on how to act as far as courtroom decorum. That would be very important," said DeLeon, who has been on the bench 31 years and is a former cable-television talk-show host.

O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson cases

In another high-profile celebrity trial 23 years earlier, there was no doubt that the late super-lawyer Johnnie Cochran had told the jury: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." That's because the O.J. Simpson double-murder case in Los Angeles was telecast around the world on live TV and millions heard the iconic line.

"You just couldn't look at the transcript and get the full meaning of `If it doesn't fit, you must acquit' — you had to see it," DeLeon recalled.

In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court directed that states could make their own rules governing cameras in courts.

That allowed the public to witness a steady stream of real-life courthouse drama, including the 1992 trial of cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in Wisconsin; the 2011 trial of Florida mom Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murdering her daughter; George Zimmerman's 2013 trial for slaying unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin; and the 2011 trial and manslaughter conviction of Dr. Conrad Murray for the death of King of Pop Michael Jackson.

Kevin S. Burke, a Minneapolis District Court judge and treasurer and past president of the 2,000-member American Judges Association, said cameras and audio recording devices are the 21st-century equivalent of the quill pens used by 18th-century reporters, when the nation's founders amended the Constitution to include freedom of the press.

"You can't restrict quill pens. Why would you end up saying that you can restrict the modern-day tools of journalists?" asked Burke, who has been a judge for 34 years, longer than any current Minnesota judge.

In Cosby's case, the best authority on his courtroom outburst might be the sketch artist.

"He said, 'He doesn't have a plane, you a——,' " Christine Cornell, who was picked to provide artwork to broadcast news organizations throughout the trial, recalled in an interview. "He spoke of himself in the third person. Oh God, it was pathological. He spoke in this big booming voice. There was so much drama in this trial, it was absolutely astonishing."

Although dozens of reporters were in the courtroom to see the reading of the verdict in the Cosby trial, the only images of the proceedings made available to the general public were those sketched by Cornell, 63, a freelance artist from Weehawken, N.J., whose numerous assignments in her 43-year career have included the 2012 trial of child molester Jerry Sandusky and the ongoing Penn State fraternity hazing case, both taking place in Pennsylvania.

Cornell's aversion to allowing cameras into courts runs deeper than her desire to stay employed. She believes that cameras make it harder for defendants to get fair trials. She noted that the five teenage boys charged with rape in the 1989 Central Park jogger case were vilified by the media and convicted, only to be exonerated of all charges years later. While covering the New York trial she poured compassion into sketching the teens' likenesses, "which wasn't easy because those weren't sympathetic kids," she said.

"If you are on trial, you are not there to entertain the world, this is life-and-death stuff," she said. "If you're accused of a crime there's a presumption of innocence — that's a delicate thing. I think the artist acts as a kind of a protection for [defendants], a filter. It's not going to do them any favors to have them photographed and photographed. There's a kind of cruelty about that. The camera has no heart, and the artist does."

In New Jersey, news organizations must ask permission of a judge to film or take pictures. Although that policy allows for the possibility of a judge to deny access, it's better than Pennsylvania's total ban, said Walter Luers, a Clinton, N.J., attorney who focuses on access to public records and judicial transparency.

"Cameras increase the credibility of the institution when people see how it operates, and people act differently when they know the public can see them," he said. "Cameras make people behave better, just like police dashcams."

But one expert says trial courts — where witnesses, lawyers, and judges often clash — are most in need of cameras to document not just what was said but what was done.

"In general, I'm in favor of it," said David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "I think the courtroom is the place where the public is entitled to be. If we can have people in the courtroom watching, then why not have cameras — with proper restrictions, of course."

A laughing matter

A camera in the June 18 hearing for Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill could have cleared up what became a central question: Did the judge laugh out loud?

The courtroom was packed as Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley, in prosecutorlike fashion, pressed a defense expert witness on why he thought Mill was entitled to a new trial for a decade-old conviction on drug and gun charges.

But the questioning escalated into a confrontation when the rapper's lawyer erupted, accusing the judge of derisively laughing at a response by the witness, Bradley Bridge, a veteran attorney with the Philadelphia Public Defender's Office.

Members of the six-lawyer defense team said the judge laughed at and ridiculed Bridge, a respected lawyer of nearly 40 years. Brinkley conceded that she may have smiled, but insisted she had not laughed.

The judge and the defense lawyers left that hearing agreeing to disagree over what happened. A camera likely would have resolved the dispute.

Still, cameras in courts aren't for everyone. Opponents include Bridge, who says that Brinkley derisively laughed at him while he testified on behalf of the rapper.

"Cameras demean the process because what ends up happening is people play to cameras rather than playing to the judge or the jury," Bridge said. "And I think it makes the process undignified."

But some experts believe that cameras can boost the judicial system's credibility with the public.

Opening courts to cameras would engender greater respect for courts, lawyers, and the law, said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican who represents parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties and chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We need democracy to be open so the public will know what the courts are doing," he said.

"It's important and to the benefit of the courts to do that. People would have a greater appreciation and respect for what they do, and also [the courts] would know that the public is watching."