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General Assembly to again consider broadcasting sentencing hearings

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore City and sponsor of a bill that would allow criminal sentencing proceedings to be televised, says it’s important to show people what goes on in court, particularly in the wake of the Justice Department findings and consent decree calling for reform of Baltimore’s criminal justice system. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore City and sponsor of a bill that would allow criminal sentencing proceedings to be televised, says it’s important to show people what goes on in court, particularly in the wake of the Justice Department findings and consent decree calling for reform of Baltimore’s criminal justice system. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

A Baltimore city delegate has reintroduced legislation to allow media organizations to film and broadcast criminal sentencing proceedings after his bill died in committee during last year’s General Assembly session.

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr.’s cameras in the courtroom bill received an unfavorable report last year from the House Judiciary Committee, with judges, attorneys and victims’ rights advocates testifying against the measure.

Yet Conaway, a Democrat, has introduced an identical bill this year as well as one that would only apply to Baltimore courts.

“We had some high-profile cases in Baltimore city, and a lot of times the legislature deals with Baltimore city as a different kind of entity,” Conaway said Wednesday.

Conaway previously cited in support of his measure the civil unrest in Baltimore in 2015 and a lack of trust in the justice system as well as misinformation about how it functions. Now that the U.S. Department of Justice has released a findings report and filed a consent decree addressing constitutional violations in the city’s justice system, he said Wednesday it remains important to show people what goes on in court.

The purpose of allowing the hearings to be broadcast is to show the general public there are consequences for certain behavior, he added.

House Bill 46, the general cameras in courtrooms measure, and House Bill 43, which is specific to Baltimore, are scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 25 at 1 p.m.

The Maryland Judiciary is opposed to the measures, a spokesman said Wednesday, after strongly opposing the legislation last year. Court system officials last year pointed to a 2008 study when similar legislation was proposed that concluded media presence during sentencing hearings would have a negative impact on the judicial process.

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

The bill would require the media outlet to file a written request with the clerk of the court at least 24 hours prior to the start of the hearing, according to the bill, and identify the hearing, dates, pooling arrangements, equipment and media representative attending the hearing. The clerk would then notify the parties, and the presiding judge can grant or deny the request.

Critics pointed to the limited window for a decision as a problem because the bill instructs the clerk to give “prompt notice” to the parties but then prosecutors and defense attorneys would be responsible for notifying witnesses their statements to the court would be broadcast.

Conaway said this year’s bills limit recording to the defendant and his or her attorney, the judge and possibly court employees, addressing the concerns raised last year he said were valid.

“The argument would be for the limited usage and have any media release at least blackout or agree to blackout witnesses or people in the audience,” he said.


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