TV stations ask judge to allow cameras in courtroom for pharmacist's murder trial

Television stations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa asked a trial judge Tuesday to permit cameras in the courtroom during the trial of a pharmacist charged with killing a would-be robber.

The motion was filed on behalf of KWTV and KFOR in Oklahoma City and KOTV in Tulsa.

"This is a story that carries with it an enormous amount of public interest," KWTV NEWS 9 P.M. Content Director Jenny Monroe said. "It is our job as journalists to serve the public and do whatever possible to provide the information to the people of Oklahoma. We believe allowing Oklahomans to see firsthand what is being said and decided in this case is in the best interest of everyone."

Under Oklahoma law, the initial decision to allow the cameras into the courtroom rests with Judge Tammy Bass-LeSure, who is presiding over the trial of
Jerome Ersland in Oklahoma City.

In 1958, some 20 years before the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the same philosophy, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reasoned that the mere presence of cameras in a courtroom does not inherently interfere with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. (Lyles v. State, 1958 OK CR 79, ¶¶ 21-23, 330 P.2d 734, 742)

Noting that it had allowed television cameras in its courtroom, the state court said, “Our experience is that when properly supervised by the court, there is neither disturbance, distraction, nor lack of dignity or decorum.”

The court contended that television cameras educate the public about the judicial system, explaining:

“There is no field of government about which the people know so little as they do about the courts. There is no field of government about which they should know as much, as about their courts. Those institutions of justice engaged in construing constitutional rights and interpreting legislative acts which will determine our enjoyment of life and liberty and our pursuit of happiness. What is more vital to the people? Many members of the legal profession who advocate the dissemination of knowledge for every purpose in all other fields rebel at the thought of the people being informed concerning the operations of the lawyers’ legal preserve. The courts do not belong to the lawyers but are institutions by, of, and for the people. In this modern age, it is well that the veil of mysticism surrounding our courts be removed and the people be confronted with reality. We are not afraid or ashamed and we must be consistent.”

However, the current standard for permitting cameras in Oklahoma courtrooms came about in 1997 when the Oklahoma Supreme Court adopted Judicial Canon 3(B)(9), which states:

“Except as permitted by the individual judge, the use of cameras, television or other recording or broadcasting equipment is prohibited in a courtroom or in the immediate vicinity of a courtroom.”

Even if the judge allows cameras, Canon 3(B)(9) permits the defendant to nix their use in the courtroom. As recently as 2000, Oklahoma and Alabama were the only states that required the consent of criminal defendants to televise their trials.

Oklahoma law also prohibits the photographing or broadcasting of any witness or juror who objects to the judge in advance.

Here is the rest of Canon 3(B)(9)’s wording:

• Before cameras, television or other recordings or broadcasting equipment are used, express permission of the judge must be obtained.
• The judge shall prescribe the conditions and specific rules under which such equipment may be used.
• Media personnel shall not distract participants or impair the dignity of the proceedings.
• No witness, juror or party who expresses any objection to the judge shall be photographed nor shall the testimony of such a witness, juror or party be broadcast or telecast.
• There shall be no photographing or broadcasting of:
(1) any proceeding which under the laws of this State are required to be held in private; or
(2) any portion of any criminal proceedings until the issues have been submitted to the jury for determination unless all accused persons who are then on trial shall have affirmatively, on the record, given their consent to the photographing or broadcasting.
• No media representative shall offer, nor shall any party, witness or juror accept, consideration in exchange for consent to telecast, broadcast or photograph the judicial proceeding.
• Representatives of the news media shall conduct themselves at all times in a professional manner consistent with the spirit and intent of this rule. In order to insure such conduct, if such conduct of the news media which violates any of these rules is brought to the attention of any judge, the offending person shall be notified to immediately cease and desist such activity. If the offending party refuses to comply with the order, the judge may act to end such activity, including the seizure of the equipment of such person. Any offender may be dealt with for contempt of court.
(Canon 3(B) (9) of the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct, OKLA. STAT. tit. 5, Ch. 1, App. 4)

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.