Utah opens trial courts to TV and radio coverage

By Paul Foy

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Reporters hold up signs at the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse after it was announced that the jury in the Brian David Mitchell Trial reached a guilty verdict. The Utah court system will make a big change Monday by opening trial proceedings to television and radio coverage.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

SALT LAKE CITY — Opening Utah's courtrooms to television and radio coverage isn't a problem for 4th District Judge David Mortensen.

It will help educate the public, said the Provo judge. He favors the concept even though he voted against the change. Mortensen was among three dissenters on a 13-member judicial study panel of judges, media lawyers and court officials that recommended open coverage of trial courts.

Mortensen said the decision to open trials to media coverage should be left to individual judges on a case-by-case basis. Instead, Utah's new rule holds that all court proceedings will be open unless a judge can cite good reasons in writing to keep them closed.

It's a big change for Utah, which will make the switch on Monday. It will go from being among the most restrictive to one of the most open states in allowing electronic coverage of the courts, even with portable devices or laptops and Twitter accounts or blog posts, says a professional group of broadcasters.

Utah is joining 37 states that routinely allow broadcast coverage of trial proceedings, said Derrick Hinds, communications manager for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

In other states, "you have to jump through so many hoops or conditions to satisfy court authorities that in practice it doesn't happen," he said.

Some Utah judges were dead-set against opening trials to broadcasting, fearing they'd lose control of courtrooms. Broadcasting could upset victims or leave witnesses feeling intimidated, they warned the judicial study panel.

"We realize the judiciary in Utah is frequently on the cutting edge of new developments," district judges Michael Westfall, John Walton and Rand Beacham said. "We're just not sure that restricting a judge's control over his or her courtroom by creating a presumption in favor of electronic media access is the direction the courts in Utah should go."

Others argued that opening courts to broadcast coverage would alter behavior inside the courtroom or sway proceedings. It turned the O.J. Simpson murder trial "into a national soap opera" with lawyers and the judge pandering to cameras, said 2nd District Judge Thomas L. Kay in Bountiful.

"What about the argument frequently used by the media that televising trials educates the public? It's transparent sophistry," said Kay, who called trial coverage nothing more than "a form of entertainment" for most people.

Trials are for determining a person's guilt or innocence, not for public education, he said.

Utah's judicial study panel compiled a list of electronic misbehaviors documented by courts as part of a 259-page recommendation. A New Jersey resident was removed from a jury pool after trying to "friend" the defendant on Facebook, the officials said. In a Utah courtroom, a man warned his wife by text message a warrant had just been issued for her arrest.

Utah's rules allow judges to prohibit such forms of communication. Broadcasting will be allowed by only one camera operator, who will be forbidden from showing jurors.

"We hope that by opening the courtroom to TV cameras, the public will have a better understanding of its court system," said Nancy Volmer, a spokeswoman for the Utah judiciary.

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