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Having district court commissioners determine if defendants are indigent would compromise the commissioners’ ability to be neutral arbiters in cases, Chief Maryland District Court Judge John P. Morrissey told state senators Thursday. ‘We are not the prosecuting body,’ he said. ‘We are the neutral body.’(Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Judges, attorneys speak out against cameras in Md. courtrooms

Proposed legislation not about educating but broadcasting ‘lurid details,’ opposition tells House committee

ANNAPOLIS – A proposed bill to allow the media to record criminal sentencing proceedings was criticized by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges at a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The critics of House Bill 81 cited a chilling effect on the rights of defendants and victims to speak at sentencing hearings if they find out their words can be broadcast on the evening news.

“Allowing television to come into sentencing hearings is simply bad policy,” said John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland.

The Judiciary conducted a study in 2008, when similar legislation was proposed, and concluded media in courtrooms would have a distinct negative impact on the judicial process, Morrissey said.

Del. Frank Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore City, the bill’s sponsor, said his intent was to add transparency to criminal sentencing proceedings.

Conaway said the civil unrest in Baltimore last year following the death of Freddie Gray showed a lack of trust in the system as well as misinformation about how it works.

To Baltimore City District Judge Nathan Braverman, however, the bill is not about educating the public but allowing the media to broadcast the “most juicy” cases and their “lurid details.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger echoed the concerns of the Judiciary, saying images of crying family members giving victim impact statements at sentencing hearings for violent crimes will be captured and broadcast, he said.

“Not one of the major media outlets is going to cover a shoplifting case, a minor drug case… or a burglary case,” he said.

The Judiciary’s written opposition testimony claims broadcasting proceedings “sensationalizes and distorts” them, citing a study that concluded television news focuses on “the violent and unusual” cases instead of those with broad community import.

Del. Trent M. Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard counties, said while she was convinced by the opposition that the bill as written was not ideal, the process is open to the public whether cameras are present or not. Kittleman suggested courts record proceedings and allow them to be viewed online, similar to committee hearings.

“It’s a public trial, regardless of how many people are there,” she said.

Shellenberger said trials are public but victims are often there reluctantly and do not want their victim-status broadcast.

In addition, some prosecutors and judges also do not want their image widely available, according to Shellenberger.

Mimi Teahan, representing the Office of the Public Defender, said the bill as written also presents issues of timing and notice because it would permit media representatives to contact the court 24 hours before the hearing they wish to record.

The bill requires the court to notify the parties but not victims and other witnesses, she said. It would be up to the attorneys to contact the people involved and inform them of the presence of cameras and file any objections which would need to be heard, she said.

The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center also opposed the bill, via written testimony submitted to the committee.

“Regardless of if the victim is a child, vulnerable adult, disabled, financially defrauded, sexually assaulted, or otherwise, broadcasting criminal sentencing proceedings will have a chilling effect on victims’ rights and as such would violate their rights to be treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity,” the testimony states.