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Seeing things differently...

Court TV in Canada? By Lynne Bell Recently, an Alberta court allowed news cameras to broadcast the verdict in the case of accused double-murderer Travis Vader, on trial for the murders of St. Albert retirees Lyle and Marie McCann in July 2010.

Court TV in Canada?

By Lynne Bell


            Recently, an Alberta court allowed news cameras to broadcast the verdict in the case of accused  double-murderer Travis Vader, on trial for the murders of St. Albert retirees Lyle  and Marie McCann in July 2010. The case of the missing couple-both in their seventies- captured the attention of the Canadian public when their burned-out motorhome was found after they set out for a family camping trip in British Columbia. They didn't make it to their destination and their bodies have not been found.

            The prolonged police investigation eventually resulted in Vader being charged with two counts of first-degree murder. To say he was an unsympathetic defendant would be an understatement. To cite a few examples, Vader was routinely late for court- not only wasting time and causing inconvenience to numerous people- but also causing added and unecessary pain to the McCann family, especially as he offered up self-serving excuses for his disrespectful behavior.

            At the urging of numerous media outlets, Alberta judge Justice Denny Thomas agreed to allow a camera in the Edmonton courtroom to broadcast the delivery of the verdict. The camera was set up behind the prosecution and defence lawyers, in a position that would only capture the judge. And although the camera operator was allowed to zoom in and out; they were not allowed to film any wide shots of the courtroom. Nor were they allowed to film Vader.

            When Judge Thomas granted permission to film this portion of  the trial, he stated that the court camera would educate the public regarding the differences between a judge and jury trial. The judge  also stated that it would “take all day” to read his 68,000-word judgment, so instead, he said he would read a summary of his decision on-camera. The Crown voiced the concern that reading a summarized judgment on-camera would mislead, rather than educate the public. However, Alberta criminal lawyer Balfour Der declared that cameras in court allowed access to justice wherever a member of the public was- either observing events in the courtroom itself or “ from their home, their television, wherever they are.”

            Even members of the McCann family agreed that a live broadcast of the verdict televised was an idea that was long overdue.

            So what's the problem?

            Well, there are many excellent arguments against allowing cameras in courtrooms- they can be a source of potential intimidation to witnesses, they can have the opposite effect on persons prone to grandstanding, and most worryingly, they can run the risk of compromising fairness and impartiality.

            Travis Vader's demonstrated disrespect for the justice system would, I suspect, not be improved by the presence of a video camera. And Judge Thomas's summary sets a potentially-concerning precedent- is his condensed reading convenient for television viewers or a slippery slope to more media-accommodating shortcuts?    

            I don't know the answer to these questions. But I suspect that only the most sordid and gruesome trials would be broadcast in an effort to entertain the Canadian public (and boost ratings)-  rather than further educate our country's citizenry on selected aspects of our legal system.

            The McCann murders were shockingly random and seemingly without motive- the couple's bodies were not found, no murder weapon was found, and the police investigation was exceedingly complex and said to resemble what one commentator called: “the plot of every episode of Law and Order.”

            But the McCann case wasn't just another episode of Law and Order. It was a real human tragedy, and the purpose of Travis Vader's trial was to find the truth and mete out justice- not to be a  source of entertainment. 

            If trials are routinely broadcast in this country, we run the risk of trivializing crime and hobbling real justice. It's not a risk that's worth taking for the sake of ratings.



Cameras in the courtroom?

By Kelly Running


                Growing up I remember the television show Judge Judy, I think it’s still on, but there seemed to be a fad of watching television shows of actual cases being tried by real judges. Judge Judy was one, People’s Court another. I’d watch and wonder why you’d ever want to have your case tried in front of the entire country.

                In Canada, we’re just starting to look at moving towards cameras in court rooms in order to live stream the goings on in the court. Obviously it’s not going to become a television show like those in the States, but it was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about cameras in the court room.

                Currently the rule in Canada is to keep the cameras out of the court room; court proceedings are not televised. Nor can they be recorded in any way, other than the court stenographer or with pen and paper. Over the years, however, there have been exceptions. This includes hearings since the mid-1990s being broadcast from the Supreme Court of Canada, while certain courts will occasionally allow cameras in Manitoba. Additionally the Federal Court of Appeal, Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, and the B.C. Supreme Court have all been involved in a variety of different pilot projects introducing cameras to the courtroom.

                These public inquiries and royal commissions weren’t criminal trials though. Although there have been precedents set including the closing arguments in B.C. in 2000 of a trial involving nine Korean sailors accused of human smuggling. A judge granted permission for this portion of the trial to air and it did.

                Currently the question has come up regarding a trial in Alberta and cameras were allowed in the judge’s ruling, so the verdict in the Travis Vader murder was broadcast.

                In Canada our courts are open to the public, in Carlyle for example you can walk into court – quietly – and take a seat, listening and watching what’s going on. But, what happens in a court can influence people. If this person has been charged with crime “x” then even if they aren’t convicted, that will stick in your mind as associating with that person.

                A witness testifying doesn’t want that kind of publicity either. Yes, people might know their name, but there could be dozens of John Smiths out there.

                Knowing the very little I’ve read and watched of American court, it’s not a good idea. Oftentimes people will play up to the camera and a case where a jury has made a decision is all of a sudden put under scrutiny by the entire country. Jurors as well, I would assume, would want anonymity. It’s a burden of a job to do and then being televised across the country? No thank you.

                I sometimes watch Law and Order: SVU, it does make for good TV… but should our justice system be looking to make good television? No. It should be focused on ensuring justice is brought and if televising the courtroom could potentially put in danger witnesses, the accused who was acquitted but whom the audience that watched on TV don’t agree with, etc…

                The media is powerful. In fact look at the clown craze lately. I’m sure the only reason it’s exploded and people all around the world are wearing clown suits are to get in on that band wagon, one that media has given attention to and therefore continued the phenomenon. The same thing could happen regarding court cases and I don’t think that’s right.