Equipping police officers with body cameras has been called a crucial step toward restoring their battered image. Politicians and police chiefs alike say the video footage will help hold officers accountable.

Yet on the other end of the justice system, Minnesota courts still view a news camera as an intruder.

For more than 40 years, the Minnesota Supreme Court has effectively barred photographers from criminal trials. It’s been persuaded that broadcasting from the courtroom will invade the privacy of crime victims and witnesses and turn serious proceedings into made-for-TV spectacles.

That ban has worked well for sketch artists, but otherwise denied the public a complete picture of how justice is doled out in Minnesota.

On Aug. 12, the state court system took a small but significant step toward bringing news cameras back into courtrooms. Judges must allow cameras into sentencings and other post-conviction proceedings “absent good cause” that those hearings should be closed, according to the Supreme Court’s order.

Off limits are any proceeding with the jury present, any case involving domestic violence or criminal sexual conduct or any image of victims testifying, unless the victim agrees in advance.

And don’t expect to tune in to testimony from forensic experts, stinging cross-examination of witnesses or the reading of verdicts. Trials are off limits for cameras, unless all the parties consent ahead of time. That’s been virtually impossible over the past four decades.

With its hard line on cameras in courtrooms, Minnesota stands out among its neighboring states. People in Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota are accustomed to seeing court action on their TV screens and in their newspapers.

Yet even Minnesota’s “limited pilot project” of allowing cameras into sentencings goes too far for Associate Justice Alan Page, who’s retiring from the bench this month. His dissent warns that witnesses seen on camera will risk retaliation outside court, that the coverage will exacerbate negative depictions of black people and that TV cameras reduce the administration of justice to entertainment. The limited news media interest in civil trials, which have been open to cameras since 2011, “suggests that the media’s true intent is covering only the most notorious cases,” Page wrote.

Some of Page’s concerns have been echoed by another longtime opponent of cameras in courtrooms, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Freeman is hardly allergic to TV cameras, but he said witnesses and victims might be less likely to cooperate if they know they may show up on the evening news.

“Take all the pictures of judges or lawyers that you want. That’s part of our ballgame,” Freeman said. “For the victims and witnesses and jurors, we need to do whatever we can to protect them.”

The fears expressed by Freeman don’t overly concern his counterparts in Des Moines. If prosecutors have concerns about keeping a witness’ face out of the press, the law allows them to prohibit photography when that witness shows up in court, said Frank Severino, a bureau chief in the Polk County (Iowa) Attorney’s Office.

“We are not concerned that the public is seeing what we’re doing in the courtroom,” he said. “In fact, we want the world to know what we’re doing in the evidence we’re presenting.”

It’s telling that in its order, the Minnesota Supreme Court reaches back to the infamous 1954 trial of Sam Sheppard, the Cleveland doctor accused of killing his wife. The trial rivaled the O.J. Simpson case in the public’s appetite for every detail, as well as the condemnation of the effect of saturation coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court tossed out Sheppard’s conviction, saying he was denied a fair trial because the media broadcast a five-hour coroner’s inquest of Sheppard and publicized the names and addresses of jurors, among other excesses.

“Bedlam reigned at the courthouse … and newsmen took over … the entire courtroom, hounding most of the participants,” the court ruled.

Opponents of cameras in courtrooms don’t cite any reporter-driven mayhem in Minnesota, probably because we haven’t really been allowed to have cameras in courtrooms since 1974. The court system has no way to judge whether changing its policy will damage the right to a fair trial.

It’s just as likely to make the system better, once the public can actually see justice at work.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.