Friday, March 11, 2005
A defendant has successfully petitioned to prevent a judge from opening his courtroom to television and still cameras in Heckstall v. McGrath. Using New York's Civil Practice Law and Rules section 78, pursuant to CPLR 506 (b)(1) Gregory Heckstall "alleges that respondent ignored a clear statutory bar to cameras in judicial proceedings and the presence of cameras at his trial [that] will result in a public spectacle that [will] adversely affect the testimony of witnesses, the evaluation of the evidence by jurors and the conduct of counsel. Petitioner also contends that since he will be unable to demonstrate sufficient prejudice arising from the subtle effects of the cameras' presence to warrant reversal of any conviction, respondent's decision will escape meaningful review unless this Court addresses it here. We agree.
"While respondent certainly has the right to control the proceedings before him and control his courtroom, that right is not absolute...The act by respondent that exceeded his authority was not making a ruling...but implementing a ruling interpreting Civil Rights Law [section] 52 in such a way that permitted third parties to violate the clear legislative mandate of that statute....As respondent has exceeded his authority, we must determine whether a writ of prohibition should be issued. Prohibition is required here because deprivation of a fair trial is a grave harm and petitioner cannot adequately address this issue on an appeal....It is undisputed that the right to a fair trial is paramount. Unfortunately, the extent to which cameras in the courtroom affect that right--including whether jurors will be unwilling to serve, witnesses reticent to testify, or attorneys prone to grandstanding--is unknown and largely unmeasurable...A criminal defendant cannot be expected to adequately show on appeal that he or she was prejudiced by such unmeasurable conduct. Because respondent's actions implicate petitioner's fundamental right to a fair trial in a way which cannot be adequately addressed on appeal, this Court will exercise its discretion in this action and grant the petition."