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By: Joe Tamburino
The trial has ended, former officer Chauvin awaits sentencing, and people will be dissecting this event for years but one thing is crystal clear – cameras in the courtroom worked.
Cameras are not generally allowed in Minnesota courtrooms because the applicable rule is very restrictive. Minnesota General Rules of Practice (Minn. Gen. R. Prac.) only permit cameras if the defense and prosecution agree and the judge approves (Rule 4.02 (d), Minn. Gen. R. Prac.). Historically, there have been no televised/live-streamed cases because the parties and the trial judge never unanimously agreed to permit cameras. At least one party, usually the prosecutor, does not consent.
In the Chauvin case, the prosecutors vehemently and repeatedly objected to cameras. They made the typical arguments and objections: that cameras invade witnesses’ privacy and will affect witness testimony adversely. The judge, faced with the reality of COVID -19 restrictions including limited public gatherings, mandated masks inside buildings, and physical distancing requirements, had to balance those restrictions against the defendant’s right to a public trial and the public and press’s right to access the trial. So, the judge flexed some judicial muscle and used the general “catch-all” provision in the rules to overrule the prosecutors.
That provision states “a judge may modify the application of these rules in any case to prevent manifest injustice” (Rule 1.02, Minn. Gen. R. Prac.). The judge reasoned that Mr. Chauvin had a right to a public trial and the public and press had a right to view the trial, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented that; only a handful of people could sit in the courtroom. Cameras were necessary to ensure a public trial and prevent a manifest injustice.
Some, adopting the prosecution’s concerns, feared that cameras would have negatively affected witness testimony and the conduct of the attorneys. They worried witnesses would be hesitant to testify and appear sheepish on the stand, and that attorneys would play to the cameras by bombastically arguing their cases and unfairly attacking witnesses. The opposite occurred.
The eyewitnesses testified clearly and had no obvious discomfort with the cameras. The 17-year-old woman who recorded the incident on her cell phone (the video that became famous throughout the world); the mixed martial art professional; the off-duty firefighter; the gentleman who recognized Chauvin from previous interactions – all were able to answer questions and recall the events plainly and with emotion appropriate for the subject matter and the gravity of the proceeding. None of the attorneys were dramatic – not even close. There were no rousing speeches, fists slamming on counsel tables, or raised voices. Not one of the many prosecutors pointed at the defendant and yelled, “You murdered George Floyd!” an action some might expect. The trial was expeditious and calm from beginning to end.
Another argument frequently raised against cameras is that showing live testimony irreparably harms individuals who have already been victimized and are vulnerable. Proper rules of engagement can alleviate those fears. For example, cameras could be prohibited from recording juveniles and adult victims of rape or torture who choose to opt-out. In those situations, we could simply have the audio of the testimony, as happened with juveniles in the Chauvin trial.
Nowadays there is a pervasive distrust of government at all levels and especially with our justice system. Notions of the system being rigged, fixed, or simply unfair are prevalent throughout many of our communities, and many people believe that they are not treated fairly in court. Cameras in the courtroom are an important step to try to eliminate those negative feelings and fears by casting daylight on the justice system and providing transparency in the legal process.
Anyone should be able to view a criminal trial in the local courthouse on their cell phones, iPads, tablets, computers, or TVs, and the only way to ensure that is to change the court rules. In Minnesota, control of court rules is the exclusive province of the Minnesota Supreme Court, and in particular the chief judge. It is time for the public, and members of the press and legal community to push the Minnesota Supreme Court to change the rules, and, hopefully, after seeing how well cameras worked in the Chauvin trial, they will make such that change.
BIO: Joe Tamburino has practiced in criminal law for over 30 years. He has personally defended clients in over 100 jury trials, including homicide and murder cases. Tamburino is a MSABA Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist. Tamburino’s depth of legal experience and broad expertise played a central role during the trial of Derek Chauvin appearing regularly on CBS Network News and CourtTV offering legal analysis on the case. Tamburino graduated from New York University in 1986 and the University of Minnesota Law School in 1989. Tamburino is licensed in Minnesota & Wisconsin State Courts and Federal Courts in MN, WI and ND.