The trial of Julio Blanco Garcia for the death of Vanessa Pham in the Merrifield area in 2010 ended last week with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder and a sentence of 49 years. But the news media were also on trial: Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush allowed cameras in a Fairfax courtroom for the first time since 1994, over the objection of both the prosecution and the defense.
No media circus ensued. But did the cameras affect the outcome of the case? Probably not, but you could make the argument they did, based on how the cameras did cause one key change in defense strategy at sentencing.
First, the one video camera on a tripod, operated by a WUSA-9 photographer, and the one still camera, wielded inside a sound-deadening bag by The Post’s Nikki Kahn, were not intrusive at all. They set up against the left wall of the gallery shooting silently toward the judge and witness stand, with the jury box out of view. Both photographers provided their material to the other media as often as they could. NewsChannel 8 used long segments of the trial, in Court TV fashion, shortly after they occurred and the tape was carried outside. This almost-live broadcast did not seem to affect the proceedings, and allowed people to see their own public justice system in action, in all its frequently esoteric and sleep-inducing glory.
(Funny story: Fairfax’s new courthouse wing had two “high-tech” courtrooms installed when it opened several years ago, and Roush’s was one of them. But the technology to actually connect the courtrooms to the outside world was never quite built out, so the video camera had to be physically in the courtroom instead of just taking a feed from one of the many built-in cameras on the walls. Nearly all of which apparently are useless. Funny ha ha.)
The trial was fairly formulaic until, as expected, the prosecutors played Blanco Garcia’s emotional video confession. Blanco Garcia, a day laborer in the country illegally, didn’t testify, his lawyers admitted he did it, and the only choice left for the jury was murder one or murder two. They took the former, and the whole trial was done in four days, from jury selection to the jury’s sentencing.
Roush also allowed the reporters in the trial to have laptops and live Tweet or blog all they wanted. The reporters, an experienced bunch including TV news vets Julie Carey, Peggy Fox and Paul Wagner and The Post’s Justin Jouvenal, all played the case straight and whipped up no hysteria. This is happening in most local trials now without incident.
After the trial was over, Roush spoke to WUSA’s Fox and said she was pleased with how the trial was conducted. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me it did help with their understanding of the legal process,” she said. She also said she wasn’t sure she’d do it with a higher-profile case, and she prohibited cameras in the Lee Malvo sniper trial in 2003. She declined to comment further for this piece.
Lead defense lawyer David Bernhard said, “We have nothing but high praise for Judge Roush’s handling of the proceedings.” But he also said this: “The cameras in the courtroom did cause us some difficulties because we had to make a tactical decision not to call a witness whose fear of the cameras might have been misinterpreted as fear of the defendant.”
Bernhard was referring to one of Blanco Garcia’s family members, who would have been called in the sentencing phase of the case, not the guilt-innocence phase, and presumably was intimidated by the media. His mother and brother both were not called, and would have provided “the other side” as the jury was considering how severe of a punishment to impose. Typically, that is testimony about what a dutiful son/hard worker/devoted father the defendant is, and he should be given a chance at freedom some day.
Does that testimony affect a jury? It can. Would it have affected Blanco Garcia’s sentence? The jury gave him 49 years for murder one, from a range of 20 years to life. Would they have gone lower if they’d heard from his family? That, arguably, is one impact of the cameras. It also could be argued that Blanco Garcia’s family needed to stand up for their loved one at his moment of truth, regardless of who was watching.
In addition, Bernhard said he asked Blanco Garcia’s family to stay away during the trial, in part to give the Pham family their space, and also “to avoid the tension of cameras comparing the reaction of both sets of families, who are understandably devastated by what happened to Ms. Pham.” So the defendant had no family support in the courtroom throughout the trial, which also could arguably send a signal to the jury that even his own family doesn’t back this guy.
Fairfax’s top prosecutors, Ray Morrogh and his chief deputy Casey Lingan, tried the case and both declined comment on the cameras.
As a longtime courthouse reporter, you’ll never convince me that public trials shouldn’t be photographed and recorded as most other public functions of government are. There has to be a way to balance the right to a fair trial and the public’s right to know. The public’s right to see how its justice system works, combined with an awareness that some of the participants didn’t volunteer to be there, as they do in a Congressional hearing or a school board meeting. The Pham trial worked because it had smart, experienced lawyers and a confident judge running the show. But it also didn’t attract the national or world media horde, which can change the intensity and craziness level both inside and outside the courtroom. Still, 99.9 percent of trials don’t involve that. Roush’s first step showed that the media can behave themselves, people can see the court system they pay for, and a criminal case can still be tried fairly.