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 Posted August 19, 2003

Outside of Modesto, the Laci Peterson Murder Trial Isn't Very Newsworthy, But It Should Be Open to TV Cameras

Commentary by Richard Knee

Judge Al Girolami, of the Superior Court in Stanislaus County, has barred TV cameras from the forthcoming preliminary hearing in the case of Scott Peterson, who faces a double-murder charge in the deaths of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son.

I disagree with Judge Girolami's decision.

From the standpoint of news value, I don't think the Peterson case merits extensive coverage by any news organization, save in the Modesto area, where there is obviously local interest. Newsroom resources are thin, news space and air time are finite, and there are
stories and events that are of broader, deeper public consequence than the Petersons' tragedy.

Still, the question of whether to permit televising has First and Sixth Amendment implications. And, with all due respect to Judge Girolami, I believe those considerations weigh in favor of allowing cameras in his courtroom, absent any compelling reason to bar them.

The First Amendment issue is a matter of press freedom; for purposes of this discussion, I expand "press" to embrace all news media. The decision of whether to televise the hearing should rest with network and station news directors and editors. First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

On the Sixth Amendment issue, Judge Girolami acknowledged "a presumptive right of the public to attend the preliminary hearing," according to the story that Reuters carried Monday morning. But, he added, "that right does not mandate the presence of cameras in
the courtroom. Televising these passionate proceedings is not ... necessary to the process."

However, the Sixth Amendment part of the context raises the question of whether televising the proceedings would impede the process -- something that Judge Girolami did not address, if Reuters's account of his reasoning was complete and accurate. The Reuters story
also did not mention whether he thought that potential jurors might be prejudiced if they viewed the hearing on TV -- equally relevant under the Sixth Amendment.
Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

The main reason for barring cameras, Judge Girolami said, is to spare the victims' kin some pain. As quoted by Reuters, he said, "It involves members of the public who never asked to be involved in a high profile case and who would, under almost all other circumstances, retain significant privacy rights in having their likenesses broadcast over national television. It involves the victim's
families who will be forced to relive their worst nightmare in a very public way, which unfortunately is necessary to the process."

Because of previous, widespread coverage, Scott and Laci Peterson, their families, and many of their neighbors are already in the spotlight; their names and "likenesses" have appeared in newspapers and on TV across the country. The presence or absence of TV cameras at the hearing -- and at the subsequent trial, if there is one -- can't change that.

Nor is it likely that the presence of cameras would exacerbate the pain that those close to the Peterson couple will experience. Their
attention will be on the proceedings and on giving one another moral support, not on how they look on TV.

Richard Knee is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. In March, the Northern CaliforniaChapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him its James Madison Award for his work on the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and his long-time advocacy for public access to government documents and decision-making. He is also a member of the Citizen's Advisory Board of Grade the News.

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