Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Judge reverses ban on cameras in courtroom

Judge W. Robert Bell
After a three-month ban, news cameras will be allowed back in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, senior resident Judge W. Robert Bell said Tuesday.

But Charlotte's news organizations will need to adhere to long-standing rules about when and where cameras can be used, Bell said, lifting a ban imposed in October by Superior Court Judge Richard Boner.

Boner imposed the order after photographers from five TV stations and the Charlotte Observer shot pictures of city attorney City Attorney Bob Hagemann who held an impromptu news conference in a courthouse hallway after a hearing about the regional airport commission. 

Photography is closely regulated in the courthouse to protect identities of witnesses, jurors and others. Photography in common areas of the building has long been banned.

Boner, who retired as senior resident judge at the end of December, left it to his successor to decide whether to allow cameras back in and under what circumstances. Bell summoned representatives of the news media to a meeting at the courthouse Tuesday morning. Attending were 23 representatives from the city's five major television stations, Time Warner Cable News, WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) and the Observer. 

Julie Szulczewski, news director for WSOC (Channel 9), said during the meeting that journalists were wrong to shoot in the hallway and stations had apologized to Boner for oversight. WSOC's Mark Becker, a 30-year veteran of Channel 9, said some of the journalists in the Hagemann case were assigned to other beats and were unfamiliar with courthouse protocols. 

Five months before the Hagemann incident, another violation brought a warning about camera rules. A WCNC (Channel 36) journalist shot and posted a cellphone picture outside the courtroom where Carolina Panther Greg Hardy had just appeared on a domestic-abuse charge. 

"This is like when the principal calls somebody to the office and says, 'Do you know the rules?'" Bell said. "I don't post them for my health."

Photography is a sensitive subject in the courthouse, Bell said. Jurors sometimes ask during a trial whether the defendant will know who they are.

Still, he said, he endorses open courtrooms "because the public has a right to know what's going on."

Since 1992, allowing photography during a trial in the county courthouse is left up to the presiding judge (photography is still banned in federal courthouses). No witnesses under 16 can be photographed under court rules, which also prohibit showing jurors or recording commercials or station promotions.

During the ban on cameras, only one trial was held that would typically attract television coverage, that of Demarcus Ivey, accused of murder during a 2009 robbery at Club Nikki's, a strip joint on Little Rock Road. Ivey's two-month capital trial, which featured an examination of security surveillance film of the shooting, ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. It was covered by the Observer, but not by local television.


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