The thought of having cameras banned at Bryan Kohberger’s trial has a lot of people insisting that they have a right to know, meaning that the trial should be televised. However, is that really true? Does the public have a right to watch a trial on television? The answer might actually be more straight-forward than you’d think.
The Short Answer
The short answer is that, yes, generally speaking, the public does have a right to know about criminal trials. However, the right to know about criminal trials—and issues pertaining to said trials–does not mean that the public has a constitutional right to watch the trial on television. In most cases, the public can obtain information about court proceedings and evidence that was allowed in the trial. High profile criminal cases are generally televised, and spectators are usually allowed in. However, the public does not have a right to demand that the trial be televised. Even though a trial may not be televised, judges generally do allow spectators in. In rare cases, a judge may even close a trial to spectators if having spectators poses a danger to witnesses and/or victims.
Tainting a Jury
One of the biggest reasons that cameras would be banned in a court case prior to trial would be concerns over tainting the jury. Once the trial has started, the concern may be for the safety of the jurors. In cases where juries are not sequestered, judges usually instruct the jury members not to consume any media related to the case outside the courtroom. This is because not all evidence collected or known is admissible in court. If the prosecution or defense wants the jury to see a certain piece of evidence, that evidence must meet a certain standard, and/or not be overly prejudicial against the Defendant. An example of overly prejudicial evidence could be the reports that Bryan Kohberger had a history of drug usage in high-school. Since those reports are unrelated to the murders of the college students, that evidence is likely irrelevant to the case and may unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant. If the evidence does not meet a certain standard or is too prejudicial, the judge may not allow it to be presented in front of the jury. However, the media generally doesn’t care whether or not evidence meets a certain standard; they’ll report on anything that’s juicy. The problem is that if jury members are consuming media outside of the courtroom, they may be influenced by misinformation, inadmissible evidence, and conjecture. This may mean that the defendant does not get a fair trial.
Can’t We Just Sequester the Jury?
Juries are very rarely sequestered, even in high profile cases. Lately, many civil suits involving celebrities have been televised and those juries were not sequestered. In both civil trials of Gwenyth Paltrow, and Johnny Depp, the juries were not sequestered even though those were very high-profile cases where the juries absolutely had the opportunity to be influenced by media coverage—though they were probably instructed not to consume any media coverage. In criminal trials especially, the prosecution usually has a budget to stick to. Sequestering a jury isn’t free, and it may not be financially possible to sequester a jury. Furthermore, if a case is handled properly, a jury may not need to be sequestered from a media circus, especially if there are no cameras allowed in the courtroom.
Protecting Witnesses and Victims
Banning cameras can also protect victims and witnesses who are testifying in court. Especially in cases of rape and sexual assault, many victims choose to keep their identities anonymous. In some cases, victims and witnesses are forced to recount humiliating and embarrassing information. There are also instances where victims and witnesses face the threat of violence for speaking out against a perpetrator. In these cases, cameras will likely be banned, and in the most extreme situations, a judge may even decide that there will be no spectators allowed in the court. However, due to the sixth amendment, spectators are not usually banned from the court—although they can be if it’s a matter of protecting a witness or victim.
A lot of people are wondering how the public will know whether or not the court proceedings were carried out “by the book” if the trial isn’t televised. It’s important to remember that hundreds, if not thousands of trials are carried out every day in this country, most of which aren’t televised; however, all courts and trials are required to follow the rules, even when there is no public interest. Even if the trial is televised, not all of those watching would necessarily have the legal background to truly understand what’s going on in the courtroom and whether or not it’s “by the book.” Most people are upset by the lack of information (and potential lack of cameras) in the Idaho college murders case because they’re looking for a spectacle. Our legal system has mechanisms in place to hold judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers accountable for improper and even illegal behavior. Furthermore, transcripts and other court documents are generally made available to the public after the trial.