Today we add our voice to that of our sister paper in Tacoma in urging Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frederick Fleming to allow cameras in the courtroom to capture the legal proceedings surrounding the murder trial of Darcus D. Allen, who is accused of being the getaway driver for suspected cop killer Maurice Clemmons.
Prosecutors have charged several of Clemmons friends and family members who are accused of helping him escape from law enforcement officers after he killed four Lakewood police officers last November.
In a recent pre-trial hearing, Judge Fleming suggested that he might ban cameras from Allen’s court appearances.
“The Supreme Court of the United States of America says there aren’t any cameras in the courtroom, no audio in the courtroom, no television in the courtroom,” Fleming told Allen’s defense attorneys during a pre-trial hearing last week. “And I think you ought to address that issue, also. We’re not going to have a circus here.”
Cameras do not create a circus atmosphere in court.
What Judge Fleming needs to understand is that in state courts — such as his — cameras are the norm, not the exception.
Thurston County Superior Court judges routinely allow cameras in the courtroom, even in high-profile cases, such as the arraignment of former Olympia Councilman Joe Hyer on drug charges. Turn to TVW, the state’s public affairs networks, and you will routinely see the nine Supreme Court justices questioning attorneys in cases before the high court.
Court rules adopted by the state Supreme Court in 1991 and updated in 2005 make it clear that cameras in the courtroom are the norm. The rule says explicitly, “Open access is presumed.”
The rule goes on to say that video and audio recording and still photography by the news media are allowed in the courtroom during and between sessions, provided that the judge has granted permission and the media — by their appearance or conduct — are not disruptive to the proceedings.
Judges are encouraged to exercise “reasonable discretion” in prescribing conditions and limitations with which media personnel shall comply.
The rule says that judges who ban cameras must cite “sufficient reasons” to limit courtroom photography or recording. The judge has to put those reasons on the public record either in a verbal ruling from the bench or in a written order.
When banning courtroom photography, the judge is guided by three principles:
• Open access is presumed. Limitations on access must be supported by reasons found by the judge to be sufficiently compelling to outweigh that presumption.
• Prior to imposing any limitations on courtroom photography or recording, the judge must hear arguments from attorneys representing those who want full access.
• Any reasons found sufficient to support limitations on courtroom photography or recording must relate to the specific circumstances of the case before the judge rather than reflecting merely generalized views.
That sets a pretty high standard.
As Karen Peterson, executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma said, “We are quite practiced at photographing trials without disrupting the proceedings and would of course do so in this instance. Particularly in a case of this importance, the public has a right to read about and see what’s going on.”
Peterson is right.
The cases tied to the murder of the four officers have widespread public interest, not just in this state or region, but nationally. Four Lakewood officers — Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39; Officer Ronald Owens, 37; Officer Tina Griswold, 40 and Officer Greg Richards, 42 — were murdered in cold blood at the Forza coffee shop in Parkland before starting their shift on Nov. 29. Clemmons, 37, was quickly identified as a suspect. Prosecutors say friends and family members helped him hide for two days until he was confronted by a Seattle police officer.
The Seattle officer shot and killed Clemmons in what was recently ruled a justifiable use of lethal force.
Allen, 39, is charged as an accomplice with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of the four officers.
If Judge Fleming wants to limit the number of cameras in the courtroom and let a “pool” photographer share photos with other media outlets, that’s reasonable. An outright ban — given the public’s interest in this case — is unreasonable and against the rules adopted by the state Supreme Court.