by Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer (retired)

When NY State finally caught up with most of the rest of the US, some years ago, and opened its courts up to cameras, news photographers, both still and video, had to learn a whole new concept of news coverage. I learned early on that one of the first concepts was "Know The Rules." The NY State Legislature started out by declaring that this was an experiment. Allowing camera coverage would show that the courts were open to the public, and since all of the public could not attend court sessions, the cameras would be their eyes. Needless to say, most judges and many lawyers were not happy with the Legislature's ruling and they went out of their way to hinder us from doing our job.

The second thing I learned was to start listening to lawyer talk and to begin talking like a lawyer. One of the first lawyer terms I learned was "precedent." If there was no precedent in allowing you in the court, or if there was no precedent in allowing your camera to be in an advantageous position then you would more than likely lose your argument. When this trial period was in its infancy, judges were reluctant to try anything new, like allowing cameras in their courtroom, because there was no precedent. And then, if they were forced to let us in when we went complaining to the Chief Judge, they tried to relegate us to the far rear corners of the courtroom.

Dick Yarwood, one of Newsday's senior staffers, and I, were instrumental in setting up the ground rules in the Nassau County Courts. Dick and I fought for entry and then for good camera locations. Once we had established this and covered our first case, we had precedent. Whenever a judge or lawyer tried to bar us or stick us in the back, we would speak up, using our best lawyer talk. "Your Honor, if it please the Court. In the case of the State v. John Doe, Judge X allowed us to set up our cameras in such and such a position." Now we had precedent and we generally won our argument.

We were on hand to apply for a position in the first murder trial in the County to allow cameras. When the judge and the court officers heard our petition, they wanted to stick the cameras in the back of the room. We, of course, argued that we wouldn't be able to see the faces of the defendant and attorneys from that position and we would be too far from the witnesses to make effective pictures. The judge said, "Yes, but you have long lenses, don't you?" And I countered with, "Yes we do. But, the Legislature has mandated that we be as inconspicuous as possible. In order for me to get a usable image from the rear of the court, I would have to use my 600mm. It looks like a cannon, and I don't think that would be in accordance with the ruling of the Legislature." The judge demurred and over the objection of the court officers who are responsible for security, compromised on a spot alongside the jury box, right next to the witness stand.

We are barred from photographing the jury, and the judge was concerned that we would be a distraction to them, so they wheeled in a portable blackboard to screen us. One judge asked that the cameras be covered when the jury came and went so that they wouldn't wonder about the cameras. The only recourse that the tv cameraman and I had was to cover the equipment with large plastic trash bags, which looked rather ludicrous. Several days into the trial, I suggested to the judge that this idea wasn't too practical. The jury paraded past our black bagged cameras, several times a day, and the tripod legs sticking out under the bags certainly didn't mask our reason for being there. Plus the rustle of the bags being put on and off each time the jury took a recess made more disturbance than if we just allowed our cameras to go naked. The judge agreed.

One of my chief concerns in being so close to the witness stand was that we might cause the witness to become flustered and be unable to give testimony. At one point, I was covering a manslaughter case, and the alleged perpetrator (that's law-speak for, "he's not guilty until proven in a court of law") was due to take the stand in his own defense later that day. He was out on bail, and I had gotten to know him during conversations out in the hall. He told me that he was nervous about taking the stand, mainly because of the camera shooting down his throat. I told him that I was sorry if my presence caused him to be nervous and I would try to limit my shots so as not to cause him any more inconvenience. I did ration my shots, still getting what I needed. And when he was finished, I asked him about the experience during recess. "Oh", he said, "I heard the first shot go off. But, after that, I was concentrating on my testimony and I never heard the camera after that." That was the last time I worried about my cameras influencing any witnesses

The cameras in the court test went on for one year. It was renewed without change for a second year. Much jockeying about the issue went on all during this time. I was on a panel concerning the subject on a local cable tv show. With me was one advocate for victim's rights who was opposed to the cameras because he claimed it violated the victim's families' right to privacy. ( this not a public forum?) Also on the panel was a criminal defense attorney who had been involved in several high profile cases in which cameras were in the courtroom. At the end of our panel discussion, this attorney summed up his case for cameras in the court by saying, "A while ago, I was asked by the county bar association to escort a woman attorney from a foreign country to view our court system at work. I took her to a courtroom where cameras were covering a major case. When we left, she turned to me and said,""Isn't it curious? In my country, the trials are closed but the executions are public.""

Dick Kraus



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