Mass. judges agree to prohibit court photos of certain suspects

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press / February 2, 2011

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For years, suspects in criminal cases in Massachusetts have shielded themselves from courtroom cameras by pulling hoods over their heads or positioning themselves in courthouse nooks where they can’t be seen.

But lately, defense lawyers have been taking it a step further. Four times last month, judges agreed to prohibit the press from photographing homicide suspects in court, citing possible identification issues if potential witnesses were to see the photos.

The rulings have sometimes been made over the objections of the media and after the defendants’ photos had already appeared in some newspapers or online.

Two suspects charged in the killings of four people in Mattapan — including a 2-year-old boy and his mother — have won orders prohibiting the press from photographing them at their arraignments.

John Amabile, a lawyer who represents one of the men, Dwayne Moore, argued that allowing the media to photograph Moore at his arraignment and disseminate his photo could subject eyewitnesses to “an unduly suggestive identification process’’ that could lead to a witness mistakenly identifying him as one of those responsible for the killings.

“It’s not just the photo, but it’s the manner in which it’s presented, namely a single image is presented along with an assertion that this is the perpetrator,’’ said Amabile.

“I’m not trying to hide the guy, nor is he trying to hide. But what you want to avoid is having the TV do what the police would undeniably be prohibited from doing, which is to present a single person to a witness in a form that is unbelievably suggestive.’’

A judge granted Amabile’s request to prohibit the media from photographing Moore during his Superior Court arraignment. After that ruling, a clerk magistrate granted a similar motion from Edward Washington, a co-defendant in the Mattapan shootings.

A judge in Springfield last month also allowed a motion filed jointly by the defense and prosecutors in the case of Jerel Brunson, an 18-year-old accused in a fatal drug-related shooting. Another judge granted a motion prohibiting the press from photographing a 20-year-old Lynn man during his trial in a fatal drive-by shooting.

Jeffrey Karp, a lawyer for Jose Cabrera, said only one witness had identified Cabrera as the shooter by the start of the trial. He argued that allowing the media to take photographs of Cabrera during the trial could influence other potential witnesses.

In Massachusetts, cameras are allowed in courtrooms under a rule established by the Supreme Judicial Court. The rule allows judges to prohibit cameras at some hearings and to limit them in certain circumstances, including if it appears that “such coverage will create a substantial likelihood of harm’’ to anyone.

Elizabeth Ritvo, a Boston attorney who represents media outlets in First Amendment cases, said under the SJC’s rule, there is a strong presumption that cameras are allowed, but in cases where there is substantial risk of harm, judges balance the rights of the defendant with the rights of the public and the media.

“Although there’s not an absolute right to have cameras in the courtroom, in order to protect these important public interests, the threshold should be high before cameras are barred,’’ she said.