Cameras at Minnesota sentencings pull back curtain on courts

Published: Jun. 16, 2019 at 7:23 PM CDT
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For decades, Minnesota has resisted allowing cameras in courtrooms for the usual arguments — lawyers would grandstand, witnesses would be intimidated, decorum would be disrupted if public proceedings were recorded and broadcast.

Under rules that allowed the judge, prosecutors or defense attorneys to veto camera coverage during the trial phase, seeing a Minnesota trial on TV “would be as common as running into a unicorn in deer hunting season,” as media attorney Mark Anfinson put it.

But video coverage of high-profile sentencings — which don’t require approval from the parties involved — is giving a more frequent glimpse inside Minnesota courts. That’s cheered advocates of openness in the court system, even as they wish for easier access at the trial phase

“It’s a definite first step. It’s not the finish line,” said Anfinson, who has seen an increasing number of video requests from news organizations since the state court system launched a pilot project in 2015.

When former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was sentenced this month to 12½ years in prison for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond while answering her 911 call in 2017, viewers could see and hear Noor’s halting delivery as he apologized, hear the victim’s fiancé Don Damond mourn the future he and his bride-to-be would not share, and hear the judge tell Noor “Good people sometimes do bad things” as she rejected his plea for leniency.

Showing courtroom action goes beyond artists’ sketches and allows people to see and hear it for themselves, said Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor at Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune.

“You really do, as a member of the community, get to experience it yourself when you hear Justine Damond’s fiancé speak, when you heard Noor speak, when you hear the judge speak. You couldn’t help but feel the emotion each of those people felt,” Dardarian said.

She said to witness that through video — “without anyone being in the way” — is “pretty powerful.”

Noor’s sentencing coincided with cameras filming other high-profile cases recently in Hennepin County, including the man who threw a 5-year-old boy off a balcony at Mall of America and a teenager who crashed a stolen SUV into a pickup, killing three people.

Minnesota is more conservative than neighbors Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota in allowing cameras in courts. Defense attorneys who don’t want their clients on camera, victims’ advocates who worry about victims being traumatized again, judges and prosecutors have opposed expanding Minnesota’s rules, Anfinson said. (The Minnesota County Attorneys Association said it would implement the new rules but was “strongly opposed to any further expansion of audio and video coverage in criminal cases.”)

But Anfinson added: “There’s just no support at all that really can demonstrate empirically that these concerns are well grounded.”

Modern cameras are unobtrusive, and gone are the days of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial “where you had to run and call it in,” said University of Minnesota professor Jane Kirtley, who directs the Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.

And while the sensational O.J. Simpson murder trial of 25 years ago is “the poster child of why cameras in the court are a bad thing” to many judges, Kirtley said, those trial’s excesses “had very little to do within the courtroom.”

Washington County’s lead prosecutor, Pete Orput, said he has no problem with the new sentencing rules and would like to see electronic coverage expanded as long as victims are protected. Doing so would help people understand what goes on in courts, he said.

“Why not publicize a trial? It doesn’t have to be a circus,” Orput said.

But Twin Cities defense attorney Marsh Halberg isn’t as positive about cameras in court, even though he thinks their use will only grow.

“What I don’t like is the 15-second sound bites at the 6 o’clock news that comes from it,” Halberg said. “It can paint things in a distorted way.”

Advocates for increased camera coverage point to Wisconsin and the kidnapping of 13-year-old Jayme Closs. Court hearings for Jake Patterson, who pleaded guilty to and was sentenced for kidnapping Jayme and killing her parents, were covered by TV and still photographers and livestreamed without apparent problems.

Anfinson, the media lawyer, said such access can have “cathartic effects” for a community “when you see real justice being done.”

“Yes, it’s happening. We didn’t just hear about it, read about it. We saw justice being done in what was a terrible case,” Anfinson said.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, a partner with Halberg in a Bloomington law firm, represented Levi Acre-Kendall, who was acquitted in a man’s April 2015 stabbing death in western Wisconsin. Nelson said cameras created no distraction at that trial.

“You kind of forget until the end of the day” that a camera was in the courtroom, Nelson said.

KSTP-TV assignment manager Daren Sukhram, who handles the St. Paul station’s requests for camera coverage, said cameras that go into court are “just showing what happens hundreds of times a month at regular court hearings around the state.”

He said electronic media should be treated no differently than other forms of communication.

“No reporter has been banned from court for bringing in pen and paper,” he said. “So why are we not allowed to bring a camera in there?”