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SJC ruling allows OpenCourt into Quincy trial courtrooms

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  August 14, 2012 05:18 PM

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A Supreme Judicial Court judge has once again ruled in favor of new media organization OpenCourt, allowing it to move forward with plans for live streaming of trials in Quincy District Court.

Until now, the organization, which is run under Boston University’s WBUR, has been live-streaming from Quincy District Court’s First Session, which typically handles hearings at the beginning of criminal cases.

But recently, OpenCourt received permission from Quincy Justice Mark Coven to begin streaming jury trials.

Although there were guidelines established by Coven, District Attorney Michael Morrissey didn’t feel they had been vetted thoroughly enough to warrant an expansion into trial courts.

As a result, Morrissey filed an injunctive relief against Quincy District Court to halt the expansion of the project into different rooms within the courthouse until a more formal set of rules was put in place.

A judiciary media committee, a group that was established by a previous Supreme Judicial Court case involving OpenCourt, is establishing those formal guidelines. It is unclear when those guidelines may be released.

Attorneys for both the District Court and District Attorney Morrissey agreed to hold off on any expansion until a Supreme Judicial Court judge rendered an opinion, which was issued Tuesday afternoon.

Despite the district attorney's protests, the justice agreed with members of OpenCourt and the Quincy District Court, saying that the move into trial courtrooms should not be postponed.

According to Justice Margot Botsford, moving into trial rooms is not an expansion of the project, as the proceedings are occurring in the same courthouse.

“It fits within the provision permitting OpenCourt to continue its operations while formal guidelines are developed,” Botsford said.

For now, the working guidelines established by Coven include no broadcasts of cases involving sexual assault or domestic violence in which victims did not want to be on camera; sexual-assault or domestic-violence cases in which witnesses are minors; or cases in which witnesses would be subject to retaliation or placed in physical jeopardy.

Additionally, trials involving an undercover police officer would not be broadcast; juries will never be shown on camera; the judge can control the audio from the bench; microphones at the attorneys tables would not be streamed; and video streaming would not be archived until a verdict was returned.

According to Botsford, those rules adequately address Morrissey's concerns regarding the risks to victims, witnesses, and defendants.

Furthermore, names or identifying information about victims can be redacted from broadcasts before items are archived, as was outlined in the Barnes case.

Because jury trials are also scheduled far in advance, and the subject matter is known prior to the trial, the district attorney and others can move to preclude media or broadcast coverage prior to the day of trial, the judge said.

As a result, the District Attorney’s office will have to ask for coverage to be withdrawn on an individual basis, as it does currently in First Session.

“[We will continue] our current practice of submitting motions, on a case-by-case basis, asking the court to protect the rights and safety of vulnerable victims and witnesses,” said David Traub, a spokesperson for the DA’s office.

Although the judge chose not to hold off on the move into trial court, the district attorney is hoping that some formal guidelines be developed sooner rather than later.

“The Judiciary Media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming," Traub said. "We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.”

Until those formal guidelines are established, John Davidow, executive editor for new media at WBUR, said that the working guidelines would suffice.

“On a case-by-case basis, there are opportunities for parties to raise concerns over specific issues or witnesses, but I don’t anticipate right now any additional guidelines coming out of the Quincy District Court. The ones that exist are the ones that we’re going to follow,” Davidow said.

“I have no idea what kinds of cases are coming forward, but I imagine there will be many opportunities to bring the cases that are heard in courtroom online and archived on the OpenCourt website,” he said.

Currently, OpenCourt is consulting with the Clerk’s Office in Quincy District Court to set up the broadcast in a trial that falls within the guidelines.

“I haven’t consulted with the court schedule for Courtroom A, but I hope [we can start] in the very near future,” Davidow said.

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