Media coverage expanding in criminal cases

A new pilot program approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court will allow the restricted use of electronic coverage in criminal courtrooms beginning November 1.

A new pilot program approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court will allow the restricted use of electronic coverage in criminal courtrooms beginning November 1.

This is a significant development in the decades-long struggle between freedom of the press and the rights of defendants, victims and witnesses.

“We conclude that there is good reason to lift the blanket exclusion of electronic coverage of public criminal proceedings so that we can study the impact of electronic coverage of those proceedings,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court wrote for the court.

The court approved the program in August, allowing the use of cameras and other electronic media coverage on a limited basis. The order limits access for cameras, microphones and other recording equipment to post-conviction proceedings; most significantly, sentencing hearings.

Cameras technically are already allowed in criminal cases with the consent of the judge, prosecution, and defense, an arrangement that is nearly impossible to make.


With the new program, the responsibility will rest solely on the judge to determine whether the equipment will be allowed.

“The presumption is that camera access is going to be allowed unless a judge finds a reason why it would be harmful to the case,” said Kyle Christopherson, communication specialist for the state judicial branch. “The judges will have to state in their order why it is being denied.”

The program comes with many restrictions. Cameras still won’t be allowed any time a jury is present or in any cases involving juveniles, domestic violence or criminal sexual conduct. The same goes for specialty proceedings such as DWI, drug and mental health courts.

The testimony of victims also cannot be filmed without written consent, which was recommended due to opposition from victim advocates, judges, and attorneys on the order.

“They don’t want to subject victims or witnesses,” said Christopherson. “Those are the concerns I have heard.”

In recent years, the Minnesota Supreme Court has initiated pilot programs to allow cameras inside some civil proceedings. The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court also have video coverage.

The Supreme Court began to take a new look at the policies for criminal cases after a group of news organizations filed a petition for review of electronic media policies in 2007.

Mark Anfinson, media attorney for the Echo Press, led the effort and said he was gratified by the court’s ruling to implement the program.


“It’s not a giant leap for mankind, nor were we expecting that,” he said. “But it is a significant step toward helping the public get more complete information about what goes on in courtrooms in Minnesota.”

The court’s ruling came with one dissent from retiring Justice Alan Page, who called the decision “fundamentally wrong and poor public policy.”

“What research there is on how cameras in the courtroom affect criminal proceedings suggests there is little, if any, benefit to the public,” Page wrote in his 12-page dissent. “At the same time, we know that the potential for harm to participants in the criminal justice system is real.”

Chief Justice Gildea was critical of Page’s outright dismissal of the concept, suggesting that actual experiences in Minnesota courtrooms would provide the court with a chance to assess the effectiveness of cameras.

The program will remain in effect until January 1, 2018. At that point, the advisory committee will submit a report on the program’s progress. After that time, the court could choose to end the camera policy, grant further access or impose other changes.

(Tom Olsen from Forum News Service also contributed to this article)

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