Lights, no cameras … action!
That's what state judges in today's high-profile trials might say if they sat in directors' chairs.
Barring cameras from courtrooms where celebrity and other well-known cases are tried is becoming a growing trend — especially in California, where so many of the cases unfold. Neither the Scott Peterson (search) nor the Robert Blake (search) murder trials in California will be televised, after judges in both recently ruled to block cameras from filming most of the proceedings. (In the Blake case, cameras will be allowed during opening and closing arguments, but not during witness testimony.)
Such decisions have some journalists and judicial analysts grumbling.
"It's getting harder to convince a judge that there is any merit to bringing a camera into the courtroom," said Pat Lalama, correspondent for the TV show "Celebrity Justice" (search), which follows cases involving the stars. "It makes my job harder."
The banning of cameras throws a serious wrench into courtroom programs like "CJ" and channels like Court TV (search), which is entirely devoted to airing trials. Networks and 24-hour cable channels are also left scrambling to find other ways to make court stories visually interesting.
"The broadcast medium, the moving footage, is so powerful," Lalama said. "We aren't in the business of stick figures. We're in the business of showing you as much as we can."
That's unlikely to happen in the Michael Jackson (search) child molestation trial, either, since cameras were already banned in the first hearing. The Kobe Bryant (search) rape case in Colorado could be another non-televised affair, since the judge has closed some of the hearings to cameras. And in Oklahoma, cameras were recently forbidden in the state trial of Terry Nichols (search) for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Every time courtroom filming is ruled a no-go, the post-proceedings press conferences with celebrity lawyers like Mark Geragos (search), who's representing both Peterson and Jackson, become all the more important in covering the case.
Cameras aren't allowed in any federal courtrooms, like the one in New York City where Martha Stewart is currently on trial for insider trading. In California, their presence during proceedings is at the judge's discretion. And in New York, they have been banned from all state trials for more than half a century; a recent lawsuit by Court TV argued that the rule was unconstitutional, but it failed.
Judges and lawyers have their reasons for insisting that cameras not capture testimony in famous trials. Among their top fears: Making mistakes or acting foolish and then seeing the clip replayed on the news, witnesses feeling intimidated, attorneys focusing too much on putting on a good show and the media's manipulation of the footage, Lalama said.
Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano (search) used to be opposed to courtroom cameras when he was a trial judge in New Jersey, where former NBA star Jayson Williams (search) is currently awaiting an open-to-cameras trial for manslaughter.
"I did not want them in my courtroom because I thought they would affect the outcome of the trial," Napolitano said. "I was concerned with lawyers hamming it up for the cameras."
But since then, he's "done a 180" on the issue.
"Now I support cameras in the courtroom," he said. "Cameras help the public understand what the courts do. On top of that, cameras are very small, perfectly silent and almost invisible. After a few minutes, you forget they're there."
Despite the possible merits, some lawyers are categorically against trials on film.
"I prefer that they not be televised," said Washington, D.C., criminal defense attorney David Schertler (search). "It distorts the process. There might be a danger of people putting on a show or witnesses not being as open and candid as you would hope they'd be."
Lalama said she understands why judges in cases generating a media frenzy shy away from the on-camera spotlight.
"While the visual medium may help us tell a story, it might promote devilish behavior in terms of taking a person's look or response out of context — whether we mean to or not," she said.
Because having cameras in the courtroom is expensive and usually requires media outlets to foot the bill, it's generally only an issue in cases under intense public scrutiny.
The trend toward blocking the filming of high-profile proceedings began when O.J. Simpson (search) was on trial for murder back in 1995. The entire courtroom drama was televised, but many shudder even now when they reminisce about it.
"Ever since O.J., judges have been freaking," Lalama said. "It became such a carnival. Everybody knew that anything they said or did was going to be on the evening news. They started realizing the power of the medium."
But Napolitano doesn't think the O.J. trial got out of hand because the proceedings were televised.
"The problem with O.J. was not the cameras and not the lawyers," he said. "It was the judge (Lance Ito), who was not able to control what was going on in that courtroom. A strong-willed judge should welcome cameras because cameras become the eyes and ears of the public."
Some judges are compromising by allowing opening statements, closing arguments and the verdict to be televised, according to Lalama.
Nevertheless, views like those of defense lawyer Schertler are winning out, with few if any high-profile trials having cameras in the courtroom.
"The potential problems outweigh the potential benefits," he said.
That means TV reporters have to get creative. Lalama said that involves staking out the courtroom, covering the entrances and exits for shots of significant arrivals and departures, sitting in on all the proceedings and using courtroom drawings, stills and old file footage.
"You tell the best story you can and try to be creative using whatever you might have," she said.