VIRGINIA BEACH, VA., JULY 8 -- The lead story on the 6 o'clock news here tonight featured a first for Virginia: televised pictures from a murder trial.
Initial reactions appeared to be favorable to the first major test of a new state law that allows television and still cameras in the courtroom. The law, authorizing a two-year experiment with cameras in the courtroom, took effect last week.
That the trial being televised and photographed involves one of the more highly publicized and bizarre cases in Virginia in recent years further heightened interest in the event.
The defendant, Karen Diehl, is charged with the murder and abuse of one of the 17 children she and her husband brought here from Idaho last year in a converted school bus to live near evangelist Pat Robertson's headquarters.
Diehl's husband, Michael, also is on trial on murder charges in the Oct. 29 death of 13-year-old Dominick (Andrew) Diehl, one of the couple's 13 adopted children. After jury selection is completed in Michael Diehl's trial, which is being held in an adjoining courtroom, it too will be televised.
In his opening remarks in Karen Diehl's trial, Circuit Court Judge Alan E. Rosenblatt told the jury and more than a dozen reporters present today that "we all have a stake" in the outcome of the experiment with cameras in the courtroom. Prosecutor Paul A. Sciortino said after the first day of testimony that "this is going to be like any other trial; there's nothing different."
Karen Diehl's attorney, after losing pretrial motions to have the cameras evicted, appeared to keep away from the boom microphone closest to him during his opening argument this afternoon.
One of the first witnesses, Detective Joseph Schuler, said of the cameras: "I didn't even know they were there." Schuler, who has been instructed not to watch reports of the trial because he may be called to testify again, said that "a friend is going to videotape it for me."
Television stations and newspapers agreed to pool coverage so that only one television camera and one still camera are in the courtroom at a time. Among the six television stations in the pool is WJLA-Channel 7 of Washington.
Jay Mitchell, an assignment editor for the CBS station in Norfolk who coordinated television coverage of both trials, said that although the law would allow it, the stations "made a decision not to do live coverage, to keep it from becoming a zoo." But he said they may go to live telecasts later in the trials, which are expected to last two to three weeks.
Although Virginia is the first jurisdiction in the Washington area to permit cameras in the courtroom, 42 other states allow such coverage. The District has experimented with the idea.
Virginia's experiment is limited to circuit courts in Virginia Beach and Bedford County, general district courts in Charlottesville and Caroline County, the state's intermediate court of appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court.
After today's initial test, the nine-man, three-woman jury in Karen Diehl's trial asked the judge if something could be done about the noise generated by air conditioners and other equipment in trailers parked outside the two-story court building by the participating television stations.
Kenneth A. Phillips, the assistant prosecutor who made the opening argument in the Karen Diehl trial, said the cameras were "very unobtrusive," although he admitted that "in the back of your mind you know there's a camera back there."
Judge Rosenblatt appeared to accommodate the viewing audience by holding up three major pieces of evidence introduced by the prosecution: a paddle that allegedly was used in the fatal beating of Andrew Diehl, and a handcuff and hose clamp allegedly used to tie the youth to the floor of the bus.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Thomas Shuttleworth indicated that his client would deny killing her son, but would admit remorse for some of the punishment she and her husband meted out to the youth, including spanking him on the buttocks and forcing him to eat his own excrement.
Shuttleworth said Andrew, whom he described as an emotionally unstable, biracial son of a Chicago prostitute, was "dumped" on the Diehls by adoption workers in Illinois. The Diehls, who are fundamentalist Christians, adopted 13 children, many of them multiply handicapped, from a private agency in their hometown of Post Falls, Idaho.
The family set off in 1984 on a cross-country trek. Everywhere they stopped during their two-year odyssey they attracted favorable publicity, including in Virginia Beach, where they appeared on "The 700 Club" on Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. The good will ended, however, after Andrew Diehl died in a hospital here Oct. 29. The Diehls, who had been living in a trailer park here for six months, told the rescue squad their son hurt himself in a fall.
Karen Diehl, 36, and Michael Diehl, 42, face maximum sentences of life in prison if convicted.