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Cameras? Jury’s Still Out

4 minute read
Nadya Labi

We will follow the TV camera just about anywhere it wants to go–whether it’s up Katie Couric’s colon or down on bended knee with The Bachelor. Few places are safe from a prying lens, but one that has remained mostly off limits is the jury room–where ordinary men and women can wield life-and-death power over their peers. “The jury remains the last great black box of American democracy,” says Jeffrey Abramson, author of We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy. “It’s the government institution we know the least about.”

A judge in Houston, Ted Poe, aims to do something about that. He ruled last month that PBS’s Frontline could film jury deliberations in the trial of Cedric Harrison, 17, who faces the death penalty for allegedly killing a man during a carjacking. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week suspended jury selection, known as voir dire, to consider the prosecution’s argument that cameras in the jury room would distort both the makeup of the panel and its later discussions about the case. Fourteen of the 110 potential jurors from surrounding Harris County had expressed discomfort about being filmed during voir dire and had been excused from service. Said the prosecutors’ brief: “The desire to serve on a Survivor-style reality-television series should not be added to the qualifications for jury service.”

Frontline plans to edit the deliberations and air them as part of a documentary. The award-winning series chose Harris County because juries there have sentenced more people to death than juries in any other county in the U.S. After two years of research on death-penalty trials, Frontline decided to focus on what prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges agreed was the most important aspect of a capital case: the 12 men and women who are uniquely empowered to sentence a defendant to death.

Would Frontline’s cameras alter the very process it seeks to document? Jury deliberations have been televised before. Frontline did it in 1986, and a decade later CBS News installed a remote camera in the jury rooms of Maricopa County, Ariz., to document how juries reached verdicts in four criminal trials. “We talked to jurors months after their experience to ask what impact the camera had,” says David Schneider, a producer at CBS when the show aired. “They said that they forgot about the camera.”

Not everyone is convinced that all jurors can be so immune to distraction. “It’s a seductive thing to have a camera there,” says Abraham Abramovsky, a professor at Fordham University School of Law. “You pay a little bit too much attention to the camera as opposed to what you’re supposed to do, which is to be the judge of facts.”

Others who oppose cameras insist that juror privacy is essential to the sanctity of the process. Cameras, they say, will skew the composition of juries by removing people who don’t want to deliberate in front of them. And jurors who don’t feel articulate or confident may be reluctant to speak out or take an unpopular stand–as Henry Fonda did in the classic movie 12 Angry Men–if they think their neighbors are watching and judging them. Furthermore, recording jury deliberations, opponents say, might encourage litigation and prolong what some feel is the already cumbersome process of appeals.

But camera advocates say that the media can play a positive role. Harrison’s defense attorneys hope cameras will enhance jurors’ sense of accountability. “The mere presence of a camera will keep people on their best behavior,” says defense attorney Windi Akins. “Jurors won’t be bullied by other jurors who want to strong-arm them into changing their vote.” Judge Poe sees cameras as an extension of the tradition of open courtrooms. “We got away from the Star Chamber in England when people were tried in secrecy,” he says.

Surprisingly, the news organization that might gain the most from airing the behind-the-scenes drama of the jury room is on record against taking cameras inside. “We are a network devoted to making our system of justice more transparent,” says Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV. “But as the head of this network, my conscience tells me televising deliberations is the wrong thing to do.” –With reporting by Deborah Fowler/Houston

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