Courtroom cameras another casualty of Simpson trial

Posted: Jun. 18, 2014 11:36 am Updated: Jul. 9, 2014 1:15 pm

WHETHER OR not they believed O.J. Simpson guilty of the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, Americans were transfixed by the trial that followed the killings -- one of the most extraordinary public spectacles of the last half-century.

Extravagantly lengthy (nearly nine months) and dramatic (the gloves didn't fit!) and viewable everywhere every day on TV, it took place in a city still wary and wounded two years after the Los Angeles Police Department acquittals in the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots.

After Simpson was found not guilty, a Los Angeles Times poll revealed how racially polarized L.A. County residents were in their reactions. Among black residents polled, 77 percent agreed with the verdict. Among white residents, 65 percent disagreed with the jury's decision.

Twenty years later, much has changed culturally in Los Angeles and elsewhere. But one lamentable legacy of the trial was the chilling effect it had on cameras -- still and video -- in courtrooms across the country.

Even as the Simpson case was getting started -- but already stoking controversy because of its televised proceedings -- the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, voted against expanding what had been considered a successful three-year pilot program putting cameras into select federal courtrooms.

Non-federal judges who still had the option of allowing cameras at trials often chose not to do so after the Simpson trial because many fretted among themselves that "we don't want another O.J." Only in the last few years has a new pilot program to allow some video cameras in some federal proceedings gotten underway. Cameras are now allowed in 14 federal courts, including the Eastern District of Missouri and the Northern District of Illinois.

Illinois began a pilot program for non-federal courtrooms in January 2012, and so far 14 of the state's 24 judicial circuits allow cameras of some kind. The 8th Judicial Circuit, which includes Adams County, is not among those.

The occasionally over-the-top display witnessed by the nation during the Simpson trial was not caused by the cameras; it was only revealed by them. In general, flamboyant attorneys (and judges) will treat the courtroom as their stage, whether a camera is on or not.

Judges and lawyers should get over their fear that cameras will turn courtrooms into carnivals. Cameras chronicle the judicial process, for better and worse, and should be welcomed, not banished.