Despite nearly universal acclamation, the televising and livestreaming of the Derek Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis this spring may not turn out to be the progenitor of similar media access and dissemination as some advocates of the “cameras in the courtroom” mantra have hoped.
The enormous media attention that the case attracted was a principal reason that Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill, departing from state judicially imposed restrictions, allowed the case to be televised and livestreamed, along with the limitations on in-person access because of COVID-19. He opened up the proceedings at the request of the defense and over the objections of the prosecutors, who feared that doing so would deter some witnesses from participating and discourage prospective jurors from serving.
The prosecution team was wrong on both counts, just about its only mistakes in its skillful handling of the case.
The state, as the prosecuting arm; the stellar prosecutors themselves; the George Floyd family; and the interests of justice were not the only winners in the case. While Chauvin was convicted on all three charges against him, the media, especially the visual branch, acquitted themselves well.
Cahill, after some initial hesitancy, allowed the trial to be televised and livestreamed (and broadcast on radio, too) despite existing state court rules promulgated by the Minnesota Supreme Court that effectively preclude audio-visual coverage of nearly all trials in this state, particularly criminal ones. See “It’s Time for Cameras in the Courtrooms,” MinnPost, May 20, 2019.
This limitation on cameras in the courtroom is contrary to the state’s general policy of transparency in governmental proceedings. It also conflicts with the trend around the nation to allow televising of high-profile legal cases in state courts, spurred by the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995.
Not necessarily a harbinger
But the success of the Chauvin-trial televising and livestreaming is not necessarily a harbinger of expanded access to visual coverage of court cases here.
Cahill has announced that Chauvin’s sentencing hearing late in June will be subject to the same televising and livestreaming, a logical extension of the trial itself. Not permitting visual presentation at that proceeding would be like omitting the final segment episode of Angela Lansbury’s “Murder, She Wrote” TV program or the concluding portion of an episode of “Columbo.”
In this case, unlike those sleuth shows, it’s known who dunnit, but not how much time he will get for doing it.
The same is true for the state trial of the three other former police officers charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin’s wrongdoing at the scene of the crime, the two holding him down and the other holding back the small but vocal crowd pleading for intervention to save the handcuffed man’s life. Court personnel have stated that Cahill’s prior ruling allowing televising and livestreaming remains in effect for that proceeding, too, although it remains to be seen if the intensity of interest in that trial will prompt the same kind of extensive start-to-finish coverage as the Chauvin case.
In the meantime, there will be a hiatus in televised coverage. Cahill has indicated that cameras will not be allowed in the multiple pretrial proceedings in that case, which have already generated some significant lawyerly skirmishes leading up to their televised trial.
The federal case
That trial, however, has been pushed back to next March to accommodate a new federal criminal case against the four officers for violation of Floyd’s constitutional rights, accompanying a separate federal charge against Chauvin alone for another prior nonfatal police brutality charge. The date of that pending proceeding remains uncertain after some confusion in scheduling announcements last week. But it will take precedence over the state aiding-and-abetting murder case.
It apparently will not be televised or livestreamed like the Chauvin case. That’s because of rigid, entrenched federal court proscriptions on audio or video presence in courtrooms, indeed the entirety of federal courthouses. There are slight exceptions for federal appellate court hearings involving only judges and lawyers, without witnesses or juries, which have been the source of a few select televised pilot programs.
The federal prohibition is buttressed by longstanding opposition by the U. S. Supreme Court, although that resistance is subsiding and may, in the near future, topple. The high court has in recent years authorized same-day delayed audio broadcasting of its proceedings and, because of COVID, allowed contemporaneous media audio coverage of its remote hearings. The Chauvin experience could precipitate an attitudinal change that opens up that hallowed tribunal once the justices return post-pandemic to their building in the nation’s capital.
The Chauvin case and, depending upon its outcome, the trials of the other three, could generate appeals. The first level of appellate action would be at the intermediate state Court of Appeals and thereafter to the state Supreme Court, where the prior murder conviction of ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohammed Noor is now pending.
The state ‘s existing cameras-in-the-courtroom prohibitions are more relaxed for appellate proceedings, allowing audio or visual broadcasting or livestreaming them, although it takes a case of extraordinary interest and importance for the public to indulge.
The Minneapolis police proceedings may be one of them.
But the Chauvin case and the Floyd saga as a whole are sea-changing events here and around the country, indeed the world in some respects, regarding a wide variety of socio-political-racial concerns and issues.
The efficacious way that the criminal trial was handled by audio and visual media may be yet another harbinger of change.
It reflects that cameras and audio and visual means of reporting have a place in courtrooms, despite Minnesota’s longstanding reluctance to recognize their proper role in educating and informing the public, raising the level of confidence and faith in the fairness and integrity of the judicial process, and providing sunlight to an otherwise opaque governmental undertaking using taxpayer funded resources and bearing the state’s official imprimatur.
The media’s performance in audio and visual formats, along with that of the traditional print media, including this publication, warrants revisiting the state’s outlier restrictions on media coverage of judicial proceedings and bringing Minnesota into the 21st century when it comes to “cameras in the courtroom.”
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional law attorney and historian.
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