After Tsarnaev trial, it’s clearer than ever that cameras should be allowed in federal courtrooms

Courtroom sketches were all the public saw of the trial.
Courtroom sketches were all the public saw of the trial. –REUTERS

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on Wednesday. Two years ago, the marathon bombings ripped through the streets of Boston. This past spring, testimony about that horrible day and the days that followed echoed through the city from the Moakley Courthouse.

But because cameras aren’t allowed in federal courtrooms, Bostonians couldn’t hear or watch as the man who killed four and injured hundreds was brought to justice. We couldn’t hear or watch as he addressed the court.

This whole trial, but Wednesday especially, made it clear just how little sense it makes to continue to ban cameras from federal court.

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We found out what Tsarnaev said, what Judge George O’Toole said, only seconds after they spoke. That’s because throughout the whole trial, reporters in the courthouse tweeted the proceedings in real time, and news stations read those tweets during their broadcasts.

It was an exercise in frustration. Instead of hearing and watching actual testimony, those of us who weren’t in the courtroom had to piece together slight variations of what people said based on how others relayed it to us.

Why not just let us see for ourselves?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has worried that cameras in federal courts—they are currently allowed in state courtrooms—would cause lawyers to grandstand and testify for spectacle rather than for justice.

That argument made sense in the days before social media. But now, multiple immediate streams of information have made live-reporting without cameras very possible.

So should we forbid live-tweeting and reporting from the courtroom?

That would be impossible, because the boundaries and rules would be so nebulous. What would constitute live-reporting? If reporters couldn’t tweet, could they relay information to their newsrooms via text or email? If not, how long would they have to wait before relaying information or writing a story? Until the defendant is led out of court? Until the judge leaves? Until the reporters themselves get out of the building? And how could we be sure they were adhering to the rules? News is fast-paced. Everyone wants to be the first to break it.

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The only thing that forbidding cameras does right now is skew the truth. Which reporter’s wording are we to believe? Everyone hears things slightly differently, and in the hurry to both hear and write down what a judge, witness, or defendant is saying, they are bound to report differently, however minor the variations may be.

A lack of cameras also means that the voices of survivors and the families of the dead are relegated to paragraphs in articles or to 140 characters in tweets. We can’t hear their real voices, hear their full stories from their mouths.

In a news conference outside of the courthouse on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz praised the work journalists did tweeting the proceedings to outsiders. But, while reluctant at first to give her personal opinion, she seemed to agree with those who say it’s time to change how we relay information.

“It would be best to have a public display,’’ she said. “But I’m not speaking for the Department (of Justice) right now.’’

Right now, our information is immediate, but it’s filtered. We can remove the filter by permitting cameras in federal courts.

So why don’t we?

The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial in courtroom sketches:

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