The Houes of Delegates voted overwhelmingly today to prohibit the news media from photographing or recording any criminal trials in Maryland. Legislators charged that such coverage would lead to sensationalsim and criticized a recent decision by the state's highest court that allows electronic coverage of state trials for an experimental 18-month period.
The 97-to-34 vote on the House floor followed pleas by a handful of delegates that the court-ordered experiment began Jan. 1 to be allowed to run its course before the legislature alters it or evaluates its impact. Most delegates, however, were convinced that live television and radio broadcasts of trials, even under the strict guidelines adopted by the Court of Appeals, would create a circuslike atmosphere in the state's courtrooms that the legislature has a duty to prevent it.
"It's gonna disrupt the process, keep witnesses from coming forward and foul up the court room," said Del. Steven D. Sklar (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the bill. "You'll have an Arthur Bremer or a Son of Sam . . . playing out their criminal fantasies" on the evening news.
If approved by the Senate during the two months that remain in the General Assembly session and then signed into law by Gov. Harry Hughes, the bill will ban all cameras and recording devices from criminal trials in Maryland as of June 1. Televised broadcasts, radio recordings and photographs of civil cases, such as divorce proceedings, and all appeals are not affected by the bill and will continue to be permitted under the Court of Appeals experiment.
Today's vote followed by two weeks a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows criminal trials in state courts to be broadcast and photographed. That ruling, in which the justices said that even when a defendant objects a court may permit coverage, simply permits state courts -- or state legislatures -- to include or exclude cameras and recording devices as they please. Some 30 states have, like Maryland, decided to allow some degree of electronic coverage in their court systems.
Although several legislators warned during today's vote that allowing cameras into Maryland courtrooms would impair the judicial system, harm the rights of defendants and victims and scare off witnesses, the experiment approved by the Court of Appeals last summer applied such strict conditions that several lawyers and judges at the time predicted that electronic coverage would be permitted only in few cases.
To date only two cases -- a murder conviction appeal at the appeals court and a murder charge under reconsideration before a court in Baltimore -- have been photographed and recorded.
Under the Court of Appeals rules, defendants in criminal cases and either party in a civil case that does not involve a government agency can veto coverage. In addition, "victim witnesses, such as rape victims, in criminal cases will be able to prevent their testimony from being recorded and their pictures from being taken although they cannot stop coverage of the remainder of the trial.
Despite these protections, Sklar and others said they believe that only defendants are adequately protected by the appeals court rules, and all others, including rape victims, would have their testimony described -- even if their photographs and recorded testimony would not be used -- in order to make a good story on the evening news.
"It will increase distortion [to have cameras in the courtroom]" said Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery) after telling the assembled delegates of a recent legislative hearing in which television crews set up their cameras but ignored all testimony until one witness with an angry or heart-wrenching speech appeared, then filmed several seconds and left. "You can't undistort in one minute or if you hit the big time, a three-minute segment on the news broadcast."