And the verdict is … news and knowledge
Before television, taking a trip to the local county courthouse was a common form of entertainment. Although network news cameras eventually found their way into courtrooms, the stations generally only had time to show sensational tidbits of high profile cases. As a result, residents lost touch not only with local current events but with the judicial system itself.
To inform the public, some local courts have begun broadcasting over local cable access television and the Internet. Municipal court judges in Ohio’s Medina and Massillon counties have hooked up with local cable access television stations to broadcast courtroom proceedings. Others, such as Delaware, Ohio, are broadcasting municipal cases on the Internet.
“I think I’m the most recognizable public servant in the county,” Massillon Municipal Court Judge Edward Elum says. The televised coverage of his court cases are a useful tool for educating law students and college and high school students, and for informing the public about local crime, he says. Medina County Common Pleas Court Judge James Kimbler agrees and says his constituents often ask questions about various procedures he has referred to on television.
Jarrod Fry, general manager of Medina Cable Access, says that when he first started working with the Medina Municipal Court in 1999, many of his counterparts at regional and national conferences expressed shock that Medina Cable Access would even consider such a venture. “They were afraid of the liability,” Fry says. With a six-year track record, however, the cable channel frequently advises others how to set up similar programming in their own communities.
The Internet also has provided a new venue for observing courtroom activity. Charles Ash, owner of Delaware, Ohio-based Visual Resources Corp., which brought Delaware Municipal Court hearings online, says the hearings are recorded on audio/video equipment and sent to a Web server from which they are transmitted with a 22-second delay. Anyone can log on and watch the video-streams of arraignments, including attorneys, who use the service to see if hearings are running on schedule.
And while most local trials do not include celebrities, such as Michael Jackson or Martha Stewart, public interest generated by the Laci Peterson murder trial has taught the media that trials need not be about people that were originally well-known.
Galen Jones, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for New York-based Court TV, which has been broadcasting local hearings over the Internet for a year now, says that such trials have prompted his company to create a tracking unit that scours the country looking for compelling cases. Before Court TV went to the paid subscriber service in May 2005, a beta test indicated the Web site already had 90,000 registered users.
Andy Brooks, the company’s director of video development, works with court administrators around the country to install high-speed Internet access that can wrap into Web-based programming. “Traditionally, on Court TV we only followed one trial at a time — gavel to gavel — and we’d run into huge scheduling issues if a more interesting case came along,” Jones says. With the Internet, the only limits are the number of interesting cases they can find.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.