Fairfax judge allows cameras in a trial for the first time since 1994, and that’s a good thing

July 29, 2013

Perhaps as early as next month, local television viewers will get to see something they’ve haven’t seen in nearly 20 years: video of a trial in a Fairfax County courtroom. On Friday, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush granted a motion by the local news media (Channels 4, 5, 7 and 9 and The Post) to place a video and a still camera in the back of the room for the murder trial of Julio Blanco Garcia, accused of killing local college student Vanessa Pham in the summer of 2010. This is a great step forward for the Virginia judiciary and should serve to educate many people, both here and possibly nationally, about how our justice system works.

(UPDATE: This post originally said this case would be the first trial ever in Fairfax with cameras, but the Ralph Shambaugh trial in 1994 had TV cameras, coverage that apparently slipped the minds of some longtime court watchers I spoke with.)

Vanessa Pham, shown here in her 2009 senior portrait from James Madison High School, was found stabbed to death in her car in June 2010. She was 19 years old. (photo courtesy Pham family)
Vanessa Pham, shown here in her 2009 senior portrait from James Madison High School, was found stabbed to death in her car in June 2010. She was 19 years old. (photo courtesy Pham family)

Cameras in courtrooms continue to be a controversial thing, more than 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court said they were acceptable. Detractors say the cameras create a “media circus,” and point to the trials of O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman. But those defendants will tell you they got fair trials, because they each were found not guilty.

Though I have long been a simple pen-and-paper-pushing print journalist, I have just as long been an advocate for cameras in the courtroom, and have argued with many judges over the years on this. Trials are public proceedings, in a public building, paid for by the public. The public will better understand how the justice system works when they can see it, and they are entitled to see as much or as little as the media show because it is, like a city council meeting or a session of Congress, our tax dollars at work.

Gavel-to-gavel coverage, as pioneered by Court TV starting in 1991, provides the most complete picture of a trial, obviously, and is preferred by lawyers and judges over snippets and sound bites. Some judges have told me it should be everything or nothing. Local television stations are highly unlikely to give up eight hours of their air for a trial, though I would argue that the media should be allowed to show 30 seconds or 30 hours if they want. But now with online streaming, local media outlets can show the whole thing if they want, and I hope they (including The Post) do so in the Pham case. Court TV’s successor, Tru TV, might conceivably have some interest as well for their national daytime audience.

The default position for most Virginia courts has been to simply say no when the media request camera access, though state law allows cameras unless there is a “good cause” showing of a specific and compelling need to exclude them. There is fear that the lawyers will act differently in front of the cameras, that witnesses will be affected, that even judges might perform injudiciously. A federal judge once told me that, after watching Judge Lance Ito in the O.J. Simpson case, he would never allow a camera in his court because he didn’t want to bring embarrassment upon the judiciary as Ito did, though this judge was authoritative and unflappable.

Julio M. Blanco Garcia is accused of murder in the 2010 slaying of 19-year-old Vanessa Pham of the Falls Church area. (Fairfax County Police Department)
Julio M. Blanco Garcia is accused of murder in the 2010 slaying of 19-year-old Vanessa Pham of the Falls Church area. (Fairfax County Police Department)

As far as anyone can tell, besides the Shambaugh trial, no Fairfax County trial has ever had video cameras inside. This includes the 1997 trial of Mir Aimal Kasi, who killed two people outside the CIA, and the 2003 trial of sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. Both the Kasi and Malvo trial were shown by closed-circuit to reporters in a separate press room, but no recording or rebroadcast was allowed. In 2002, Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan Thacher allowed a video camera to record defendant Edward Y. Chen, his lawyers and the prosecutors before his triple-murder trial was about to start, but not to record the actual trial. Then Chen pleaded guilty and there was no trial. Fairfax courtrooms actually have rooms behind the audience with small openings near the ceiling to enable cameras to shoot unobtrusively, but other than for Shambaugh and a few minutes in Chen they’ve never been used.

The media may have gotten lucky when Roush was assigned to the Blanco Garcia trial. Roush handled the Malvo trial and was opposed to cameras, while then-Prince William Circuit Court Judge LeRoy Millette allowed a still camera in the simultaneous trial of sniper John Muhammad. Both judges have spoken to my class at George Mason University, “Media Coverage of Criminal Justice,” and said they had good experiences with the media coverage they did allow during the sniper trials. The still photos snapped in the Muhammad case did not influence his other cases and did not show the jury. The victims who survived, and the family members of those killed, did not report any adverse effects.

Roush said in 2003 that the main reason she disallowed cameras was because Malvo was facing more trials elsewhere and she didn’t want to influence those cases. But she has said in class that she also feared that cameras would turn the courtroom into a circus. The lawyers on both sides of the Malvo trial, including now-Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh, were utterly professional, as they should be with or without cameras. But the thing is, the circus exists outside the courthouse with or without cameras in the courtroom, always will with any high-profile trial, and did with Malvo. Defense lawyer Tom Walsh recently told the class that he recalled turning and sprinting away from a pack of cameras outside the courthouse at the beginning of the Malvo trial. He made it sound comical, and we all laughed, but it was certainly circus-like. Morrogh has said in class that he opposes cameras because it may affect the way witnesses perform, as well as some lawyers.

So now Roush is attempting to move Fairfax forward. She told the lawyers this would be a “test case,” that no exhibits can be shown without her approval and she would consider excluding some witnesses from video if convinced by the attorneys. The jury will not be shown. Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Casey Lingan told the judge that Pham’s family did not want to appear on TV, and defense lawyer David Bernhard said he had some witnesses who might not testify if they were going to be on TV.

But Roush said she was going to try it. Jury selection is set for August 19. This case gripped the region because Pham was a promising young fashion designer who, after getting her nails done at a shopping mall on Gallows Road in Merrifield, wound up dead in her car a short distance away. For more than two years, police had no leads, until Blanco Garcia was arrested in 2012 and his fingerprint matched one in Pham’s car. Many questions remain unanswered, the type of questions which often are resolved at trial: What other physical evidence is there against Blanco Garcia? How did he encounter Pham, if he did? How did she wind up in a grove of trees along Route 50? And if he did it, why? Fairfax County police and prosecutors probably have the answers to many of these questions. Now it’s time for the world to hear them.

Here is a long pro-cameras paper that Court TV published in 1995, summarizing research and arguments for and against cameras in the courtroom. Your thoughts welcomed.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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