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Stott: Pros, cons of cameras in courtrooms

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

There has been no shortage of big news stories in the past few days. Superstorm Sandy has devastated the East Coast and President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continue to spar less than a week from the election, to name a few newsmakers.

But in the small town of Morrison, another event is making news. Cameras are being allowed in an Illinois courtroom for the first major case in the state, a murder trial. Last week marked the first televised trial in the state, that of a street shooting in Kankakee.

This experiment could become one of the most culturally significant changes to the Illinois justice system.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to allow cameras in state courtrooms experimentally. Guidelines still are being formulated and legal experts are waiting to hear the opinions of judges who allow cameras in their courtrooms.

If it goes well, Illinois could see cameras in many Illinois courtrooms, a big departure from the sketches we now see used as artwork in newspapers and on TV.

Cases that used to be relayed to the public via courtroom sketches and testimony quotations could be replaced with video and still photos. The public could witness important rulings with their own eyes instead of taking the word of reporters.

If this practice becomes widespread, it will change this state.

This will be significant because it could be the beginning of a fundamental shift in the Illinois justice system.

It is strange because we are used to having live footage of so many significant news events – reporters standing amidst the high winds of Sandy to demonstrate the storm’s fierceness, others in the midst of audience members after a presidential debate, looking for reaction soundbites.

In most cases, we consider more exposure to be better. It shows people what they normally cannot see. Pictures can tell stories better than many writers can, and moving pictures with sound can put a viewer in the front row.

There are benefits and drawbacks, however, to having cameras in courtrooms. Although exposure is higher, some claim that cameras may increase the spectacle surrounding cases, become a distraction from the legal proceedings or cause other problems.

Perhaps the most notable part of this case and the presence of cameras in the courtroom, however, is that it reminds us that the justice system in the United States is far from perfect.

We know the lack of footage of legal proceedings leaves the public out of events that often directly affect them. We know that courtroom battles don’t get the same exposure as other news events, which can leave us in the dark. But the introduction of cameras will bring its own problems. A balance will have to be struck between these far-from-perfect options.

When it comes time for the judges to reflect on the experience of having cameras record their proceedings, they should consider not what is easiest, most traditional or least intrusive. They must decide what is most just for the people of Illinois. And although this might seem like a straightforward criterion to meet, we know from experience that justice is often the most elusive goal of all.

• Lauren Stott is a Maple Park native and a graduate student at Northern Illinois University in the master of public administration program. She can be reached at lauren_stott@yahoo.com.

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