Minnesota weighs keeping legal opening for cameras in courts

Published 7:57 am Wednesday, April 25, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court will hold a public hearing Wednesday on whether it should make permanent a pilot project that has allowed news cameras in criminal courtrooms in limited circumstances.

Media groups say cameras promote transparency and public access to legal proceedings. But opponents, including the Minnesota State Bar Association, say cameras can make victims and witnesses reluctant to testify.

Here’s a look at some of the issues before the justices:

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What’s allowed

The court authorized the pilot project in 2015. It allows audio, video and still-photo coverage in criminal proceedings after the defendant is convicted or pleads guilty, such as sentencing hearings. Still prohibited are sexual assault and domestic violence cases, and statements by victims unless they consent. Cameras aren’t allowed earlier during a trial except in rare circumstances.

Minnesota also allows cameras in civil proceedings, with the judge’s permission and a long list of exceptions. Cameras remain prohibited in federal courts.

How is it working?

Only a tiny fraction of criminal cases in Minnesota draw cameras into courtrooms, typically high-profile crimes such as homicides.

To monitor how the pilot program was working, a Supreme Court advisory committee collected data and survey responses for 18 months. During that period, news organizations made 135 requests to cover proceedings in 79 different cases. Permission was granted in 53 cases. That was less than 0.2 percent of all cases that resulted in felony convictions during that period.

Out of 229 survey respondents, 72 percent said the cameras had no effect on their particular proceeding.

What supporters say

Media attorney Mark Anfinson said in his prepared testimony that cameras can give the public a better understanding of the legal process, fostering confidence while countering misinformation.

Steve Goodspeed, news director at WDIO-TV, said in his prepared testimony that Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, are separated only by a bridge and a river, but there are big differences in what their citizens see of their respective court systems. That’s because Wisconsin routinely allows cameras in its courts. He said he’s seen no indication that Wisconsin’s judicial system has been harmed or that Minnesota’s has been protected.

Abby Simons, public safety team leader at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, said in written comments that some victims want their stories told. She cited the parents of overdose victims Max Tillitt and Luke Ronnei, who bought their heroin from Beverly Burrell. She was later sentenced to 14 years in prison.

“Because we were granted access to this sentencing, the ability to convey the emotions and nuance of this hearing was no longer limited to a reporter’s skill with the written word,” Simons wrote. “Through video, audio and photography they were able to see one father’s forgiveness, and the tearful words of a mother who asked that Burrell remain locked up as long as possible so that she can’t hurt anyone else.”

What opponents say

Bar association leaders said in their prepared testimony that the sample size of 53 cases was too small to reasonably conclude that allowing cameras is beneficial.

Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, noted that the rules prohibit cameras in sexual assault cases, but she expressed concern nevertheless.

“Victims of sexual assault and related crimes — children or adults — who have not reported the crimes against them will likely not know the procedural rules that govern audio and video coverage,” Palmer wrote. “These victims are already highly reluctant to engage with the system and perception of heightened media coverage, even if unfounded, could prove enough to keep a victim from reporting.”

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said in written comments that the idea that cameras and a lasting presence on the internet await their eventual testimony won’t increase the comfort or decrease the concerns of innocent victims and witnesses about participating.

“Ultimately, if even one victim does not call for help, or even one witness refuses to come forward because of their fear what a media camera or the internet will do down the road, the price is too great,” Kendall wrote.