Spector trial renews debate on TV in courtroom
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The last time a California megatrial was televised, the defendant was
O.J. Simpson, the judge was Lance Ito, and "The Tonight Show"
regularly featured a dance troupe of bearded men in robes dubbed the
Dancing Itos.

That was in 1995, but the state's judges haven't forgotten the parody
of their colleague or the controversy over whether the cameras'
presence contributed to the trial's raucous atmosphere and Simpson's
acquittal. Since then, judges frequently have allowed TV at pretrial
hearings, and sometimes for part of a trial, but never at one of the
big, celebrity, tabloid-and-paparazzi cases -- no Scott Peterson, no
Michael Jackson, no Robert Blake.

So media advocates and lawyers will be keeping a close eye on a Los
Angeles courtroom today, along with a television audience, as 1960s
record producer Phil Spector goes on trial on charges he murdered
actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. Court TV will televise the entire
trial, and local stations plan to run excerpts on their newscasts.

When he announced his decision in February to allow TV in his
courtroom, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler recalled the Dancing Itos
and said, "I'm not too concerned we're going to be seeing the Flying
Fidlers." But if things get out of hand, Fidler said, he'll pull the

Theodore Boutrous, an attorney whose news media clients have included
television stations and networks that unsuccessfully sought to get
cameras into Jackson's child molestation trial in Santa Barbara, said
the Spector trial could be a turning point.

"Once judges see that it's fair and controllable, hopefully that will
turn the trend back around," he said. "People have a fascination with
the legal system."

The climate has gradually changed, said Bob Long, news director at
KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, who represents California on the board of the
Radio Television News Directors Association.

"I sense a thaw and less fear of the media," he said. "The consensus
here is that enough time has passed since Judge Ito and O.J. Simpson
that not every judge wakes up every morning thinking of looking like
an idiot on television."

One who is not reassured is Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and
retired San Mateo County judge now on part-time judicial assignment.
As a judge, he sponsored unsuccessful state legislation several years
ago that would have prohibited televising criminal trials.

"There's too much at stake in a criminal case," and the potential that
TV will affect courtroom participants' behavior is too great, Kopp
said. "There probably has been a change (in attitudes toward
televising trials) because people don't remember the indignity of the
Simpson trial."

California courts opened their doors to television in 1984, subject to
the judge's approval, after a four-year study of the effects of camera

During the next decade, hearings and trial testimony appeared on local
TV. Among the high-profile cases filmed by the cameras was the 1992
trial of four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating
motorist Rodney King. Their acquittals brought riots in Los Angeles
and elsewhere.

There was little controversy about television coverage until Simpson's
1995 trial on charges of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and
her friend Ronald Goldman.

Some of the leading players -- prosecutors Marcia Clark and
Christopher Darden, defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, police witness
Mark Fuhrman and Judge Ito -- became instant celebrities. Cochran's
closing-argument doggerel about a glove found at the scene ("If it
doesn't fit, you must acquit") was replayed endlessly. Law professors
found sidelight careers as TV commentators. And Simpson's acquittal
touched off a furious debate about whether the coverage had affected
the trial and its outcome.

Afterward, the state Judicial Council amended its rules on televised
trials to bar photographing courtroom spectators, who were shown
during the Simpson trial, and to reinforce a ban on filming jurors,
one of whom was shown accidentally. The new rules also spelled out
factors for judges to consider when TV crews sought admission,
including the "security and dignity of the court."

A report in 2000 by the state Administrative Office of the Courts,
covering the previous three years, contradicted claims that judges had
become uniformly hostile to camera coverage. The report, based on
information from 32 of the state's 58 counties, said judges had
considered 2,116 requests for electronic media coverage -- television,
still cameras or audio recording -- and granted 81 percent of them.

The report said 55 percent of the requests were for TV cameras but
didn't say what percentage of those had been approved. It said
applications for electronic coverage of actual trials made up 12
percent of the total, and the approval rate for those requests was
slightly below the overall average.

Nonetheless, "post-O.J., it was very, very difficult to get a camera
in any court," said Kelli Sager, a Los Angeles media attorney.

While insisting that studies have found TV cameras to have no effect
on jurors, witnesses or trial proceedings, Sager said, "it's been
difficult to convince judges." She said the rules give judges
unlimited rationales to deny camera access without having to state a
reason and make their orders virtually impossible to appeal.

Still, she said, within a few years of the Simpson trial, judges
became more willing to televise pretrial hearings and other
proceedings separate from trial testimony. Court TV, one of her
clients, has been allowed to tape entire trials for later broadcast --
sometimes lurid non-celebrity criminal cases, sometimes garden-variety
disputes that illustrate the breadth of the judicial system, Sager

The televising of Spector's trial appears to reflect that shift in
judicial attitudes and also could test the ability of the judiciary
and the broadcast media to accommodate one another after more than a
decade of post-Simpson adjustments.

The 67-year-old music tycoon is a lesser celebrity than Simpson but
remains well known for his "Wall of Sound" hits dating from the 1960s.
He is accused of killing Clarkson, a 40-year-old actress he had just
met, at his suburban Alhambra home four years ago.

Media attorneys say viewers who tune in for a peek at low deeds in
high places will wind up with an education about the legal system.

"I've heard judges complain that (TV stations) only try to get in (to
court) in a high-profile case, a celebrity case, where nobody's going
to learn anything," Sager said. "The truth is, once people watch, they
learn a lot about the law and the judicial process."

That was disputed by Ephraim Margolin, a San Francisco attorney and
former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense

Margolin took part in the California Supreme Court's first-ever
televised hearing in the early 1980s and recalled the now-deceased
Justice Stanley Mosk's complaint at the time that he felt like a
member of a theater company -- a view Margolin now shares.

Television "fleshes out whatever prejudices you bring with you,"
Margolin said. "It causes people to see things in a different way
because they never see the entire picture."

While skeptical of the ability of juries to disregard TV coverage,
Margolin said he could accept the presence of cameras if they were
required to cover a trial gavel-to-gavel, rather than filming snippets
for the evening news and then leaving. "Otherwise, we are pretending
that we are opening (the court) to the public, but in reality we
opening it to slogans," he said.

Sager retorted that 30 seconds of televised testimony from a witness
is surely more informative than a report without the footage. And
Peter Scheer, an attorney and executive director of the California
First Amendment Coalition, a media advocacy group, said TV actually
might change courtrooms for the better.

"Knowing there's a crowd watching, I think, will encourage judges to
prepare better, the quality of their rulings will be higher, and the
same will be true for lawyers," he said. "Judges who can't control
their courtrooms are not competent judges, and sometimes the only way
we can know that is by having a camera in the courtroom."
Where to watch

Court TV plans to show the entire Phil Spector murder trial. It is
Channel 65 on cable systems in San Francisco, Oakland and much of the
rest of the Bay Area.

On some systems, it is Channel 69.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

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