State high court allows ­cameras - after guilty verdict

By Kevin Featherly
BridgeTower Media Newswires

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — The Supreme Court has made permanent a pilot project allowing limited camera and audio media coverage in criminal trials, without the parties’ consent. But the new rules apply only after a guilty plea is tendered or a guilty verdict returned.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued the changes to Minnesota’s General Rules of Practice for the District Courts on July 2.

They are based on recommendations made last December by the court’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure, as well public commentary and trial participants’ input gathered during the project.

The revamped rules clarify that audio and video coverage is strictly prohibited in some proceedings.

Those include domestic-violence trials where the victim is a family or household member.

Proceedings involving murders committed during acts of first- or second-degree criminal sexual conduct are also off limits.

The revamped rules permitS criminal-trial judges to allow audio or video coverage prior to a guilty verdict but only “with the consent of all parties in writing or made on the record prior to the commencement of trial.”

Regardless, jurors can never be videotaped or recorded, nor can reporters electronically record any trial witnesses who object, in writing or on the record, before they testify.

Anything happening outside the jury’s presence also is off limits.

The court rejected a committee recommendation to allow cameras and recorders in domestic-violence proceedings involving a victim who has died.
It also rejected public comments seeking permission to record all criminal cases, regardless of charges.

The revisions make clear that, in post-guilt proceedings, lack of consent from any party is not good cause for barring cameras and audio gear.

They also clarify that recording devices are permitted in post-guilt proceedings “even if a guilty plea is not accepted until the sentencing hearing.”

The order accepts the advisory committee’s recommendation to amend Rule 4 of the General Rules to promote consistency of coverage for civil and criminal proceedings.

But there is one key difference: In civil trials, discretion rests entirely with the judge. Language that formerly required advance consent from all civil-suit parties is now scrubbed from Rule 4.

The advisory committee issued its recommendations in December 2017 after evaluating input from participants of pilot-project trials where electronic media-coverage requests were granted. Requests to cover 79 proceedings were made and 53 granted during the project, which launched in November 2015.

Overall, Gildea’s writes in her rule order, committee members concluded that media coverage had a “neutral to positive” impact on court proceedings.

“There was, in other words, minimal disruption of the proceedings and no instances of coverage outside the conditions established for the pilot project,” Gildea’s order states.

Reactions to the changes were generally positive. Bob Small is the executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, which
submitted written input during the public comment period.

“We suggested that there ought to be training for judges and court staff, and footnote one of the order recognizes that,” Small said. “So we are pleased with the order.”

That recommendation also was included in the committee’s report. In the footnote, the court concurs that training is needed to address logistical questions about placement of media equipment, security screening and adequate pre-coverage communications among relevant participants. The order refers those matters to State Court Administration.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman hasn’t changed his mind about cameras at criminal trials—he doesn’t like them. But he said the Supreme Court’s order limits electronic media access in ways that he can support.

“There has to be notice given and that gives us time to work with the victims,” Freeman said. “The witnesses are done. You can’t take pictures of the jury. And you can’t come into some pretty highly emotional cases—family violence, those sorts of things. We worked with the court on those exceptions.”

Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge John Guthmann has recent experience with audio and video in the courtroom. In 2017 and 2018, he granted electronic media access in two high-profile lawsuits—one against Gov. Mark Dayton, the other against Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach.

In both cases, only one news video camera, one still camera and one radio recorder was allowed. The material was then shared amongst reporters.

Guthmann said the Supreme Court’s order strikes a good balance. “It leaves the ultimate discretion up to the judge for both civil proceedings and criminal proceedings prior to verdict,” he said. “So it contains the kind of flexibility that I had hopes the court would consider.”

The rule gives electronic media a shot at covering full trials, if parties grant their permission, he notes. “So there is room for people who are avid proponents of cameras in the courtroom as well as people who are not,” he said.

It might be a challenge for reporters, particularly video journalists, to get those permissions, though. Freeman said he might be willing to allow print reporters to bring audio recorders into court strictly for their own use to capture proceedings accurately. He might even entertain request by documentary crews to bring in cameras.