September 10, 2004

Cameras in the jury room

I was horrified to read your Aug. 27 piece on the Ohio court that allowed a TV crew to film the deliberations of a jury. As someone who has served on seven juries, both civil and criminal, I firmly believe in the principle that what happens in the jury room should stay in the jury room. Deliberations are difficult enough, having to reconcile diverse viewpoints into a verdict, without having the public watch. The specter of people posturing for the camera, or being afraid to speak their minds, is truly frightening. I know of no one, except perhaps a professional actor, who is able to be entirely honest and unselfconscious in the presence of a camera.

It does not matter whether the presence of the camera affected this jury in this case. The potential for the effect is there. We try to remove all outside influences from the jury room, so that the jury can concentrate on determining the facts in the context of the law. This runs entirely counter to that. Will jurors now be allowed a "lifeline" call to a friend if they get stuck?

The defense counsel in this case would seem in my opinion to have been less than competent. He states that "I did not think that [the judge] would go along with this, so I did not formulate an opinion one way or another" and then seemingly goes along because everybody else is. Even if he agrees with the decision, it's his job to have an opinion and to decide how this affects his client.

In my jurisdiction (Los Angeles County), the judges are fond of telling jurors that their participation is one of the few ways that they can have a direct effect in our democracy. Having a camera in the jury room is no different than having a camera in the voting booth.

If you want to see how a jury works, rent "12 Angry Men." If that is too dated, then remake it. "Reality TV" does not belong in the jury room. -- Art Kaufmann, Los Angeles, Calif.

Posted by Walter Olson at September 10, 2004 12:13 AM